Diphtheria

What is diphtheria?

Diphtheria is a disease caused by bacteria called Corynebacterium diphtheriae (C. diphtheriae). These bacteria cause respiratory and skin infections. People with diphtheria can spread the bacteria to others when they cough or sneeze, or if others come into contact with their infected wounds.

Symptoms of respiratory diphtheria include weakness, fever, sore throat, and swollen glands in the neck. A thick, grey coating in the throat or nose can also appear, making it very hard to breathe and swallow. In severe respiratory disease, there can be damage to the heart and nerves. Skin infections caused by C. diphtheriae typically consist of shallow ulcers (sores) and does not result in severe disease.

Information by Destination
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Where are you going?

Who is at risk?

Due to childhood vaccination, high income countries don’t have many cases of diphtheria. The disease still exists in parts of the world where diphtheria vaccines are not used or where few people get vaccinated. Travelers going to Asia, the South Pacific, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe, who are not up to date with diphtheria vaccines, can become infected.

What can travelers do to prevent diphtheria?

Getting vaccinated is the best way to protect against diphtheria. Diphtheria vaccines are combination vaccines. These vaccines protect against diphtheria and tetanus, and some also protect against pertussis (whooping cough). These vaccines are often called DTaP, Tdap, or Td.

Graphic: people of all ages need diphtheria vaccine

Babies and Children

Babies need three shots of DTaP to build up high levels of protection against diphtheria, tetanus, and whooping cough. Then, young children need two booster shots to maintain protection through early childhood. CDC recommends doses at the following ages:

  • 2 months
  • 4 months
  • 6 months
  • 15 through 18 months
  • 4 through 6 years

Preteens and Teens

Preteens should get one shot of Tdap between the ages of 11 and 12 years to boost their immunity. Teens who didn’t get Tdap as a preteen should get one shot the next time they visit their healthcare provider.

Adults

All adults should get a Td or Tdap diphtheria shot every 10 years after getting their most recent dose as an adolescent. All adults who have never received Tdap should get one shot followed by either a Td or Tdap shot every 10 years. 

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If you traveled and feel sick, particularly if you have a fever, talk to a healthcare provider and tell them about your travel. 

If you need medical care abroad, see Getting Health Care During Travel.

 

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