What is diphtheria?

Diphtheria is a disease caused by bacteria called Corynebacterium 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 a thick, grey coating in the throat or nose. Swollen glands in the neck can also appear. In severe respiratory disease, damage to the heart and nerves can occur, as well as trouble breathing. Death can occur if a person has trouble breathing. Skin infections caused by diphtheria bacteria typically consist of sores or shallow ulcers (sores); these infections usually do not result in severe disease.

Who is at risk?

High income countries don’t have many cases of diphtheria due to vaccination. The disease still exists in parts of the world where diphtheria vaccines are not used or where few people get vaccinated. Unvaccinated travelers going to Asia, the South Pacific, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe can become infected.

What can travelers do to prevent cholera?

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.


All adults should get a 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. Vaccine providers can give Tdap to an adult who has never received it at any time, regardless of when they last got Td.


If you traveled and feel sick, particularly if you have a fever, talk to a healthcare provider, and tell them about your travel. Avoid contact with other people while you are sick.

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


Traveler Information

Clinician Information