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What is it?

Diphtheria is a serious infection that can be caused by different but related types of a bacterium. The infection typically affects the throat and tonsils, but it can also affect the skin if wounds or injuries are present. If the disease becomes very severe, the airways can become blocked.1,2

Diphtheria used to be a major cause of disease and death, but is now much less common in more developed parts of the world, since the introduction of vaccination programmes.2

How is it spread?

The infection is spread between people through coughing and sneezing, or by direct contact with affected skin of infected people. Crowded and unsanitary conditions can increase the risk of the infection spreading. Spread of one of the types of diphtheria-causing bacteria can also happen through contact with infected animals and consumption of unpasteurised dairy products.1,2

Who is at risk?

Diphtheria remains a problem in sub-Saharan Africa, parts of South East Asia and South America, and cases of diphtheria have been reported in unvaccinated or incompletely vaccinated travellers visiting areas where the infection is found.1,2

What are the symptoms?

When diphtheria affects the throat and tonsils, a tough, 'leathery' grey or yellow coating of the throat can form, and the lymph glands can become very swollen. The infection can also spread to your voice box, leading to a cough and a husky voice. If diphtheria affects your skin, you may notice ulcers of the skin that do not heal and that can become infected with other bacteria.2

How can it be prevented?

The most effective way to prevent diphtheria is through vaccination. In the UK, five doses of diphtheria vaccine are given as part of the routine childhood vaccination schedule, and all travellers should be up to date with their routine immunisations. A booster vaccination may be advised depending on where you are travelling.2

Avoiding public transport and overcrowded areas can also help to reduce your risk of exposure.1

How can it be treated?

Treatment for diphtheria consists of antibiotics to kill the bacteria, and in severe cases, a drug to neutralise the effects the bacteria.2

Where can I get further information?

Make sure you contact your GP or travel health practitioner in plenty of time before you travel to discuss the ways you can help to keep yourself healthy whilst away. You should try and contact them at least 4–6 weeks before your trip.

After your trip, you should contact your GP if you develop a fever or notice any other unusual symptoms.

  1. Fit For Travel. Diphtheria. Available at: Accessed August 2017.
  2. Travel Health Pro. Diphtheria. Available at: Accessed August 2017.

Date of preparation: November 2017