Diphtheria is a contagious bacterial infection. It mainly affects the respiratory tract, although it can also infect the skin. It can be very serious, especially for infants and very young children.1
Diphtheria is a vaccine-preventable disease; the diphtheria vaccine is a safe and an effective way of protecting both adults and children.1
Babies and children are most at risk for becoming infected with diphtheria – and for suffering from complications of the disease.2 However, anyone who has not been immunized is at risk of becoming infected, such as through contact with someone who became infected while travelling to a country where the disease is still prevalent.2 Symptoms of diphtheria appear in the respiratory tract 2 to 5 days after infection.3 Initial symptoms include fever, chills, and sore throat, and the illness can progress to cause problems with breathing and swallowing.3
Diphtheria is spread through the air from person to person by coughing, sneezing, or touching objects that were recently exposed to the bacterial (such as shared utensils, cups, and toys) and then rubbing the eyes, nose, or mouth.4
Infected people can spread diphtheria to others until the bacteria have completely disappeared from their own bodies (usually takes 2 to 4 weeks if the infection is not treated).4 If you get treatment, you are no longer infectious after 48 hours.4
Diphtheria is preventable through vaccination.5 The diphtheria vaccine is usually given as part of a combined vaccine with other diseases.5
Canadian guidelines recommend that all children get 4 doses of the combined vaccine.5 These doses are usually given at 2 months, 4 months, 6 months and 18 months of age.5,6,7 Your child will get a booster vaccine at 4 to 6 years of age.5,6,8 An additional booster dose, combined with tetanus and pertussis vaccine, is recommended for adolescents between 14 to 16 years of age.5,8 The diphtheria vaccine should be given every 10 years after that for lasting protection.5,9
Diphtheria is treated with antibiotics as well as with a diphtheria antitoxin.10 The antitoxin is given to fight the toxins produced by the diphtheria bacteria.10 Even with treatment, diphtheria can be fatal in 1 in 10 cases.10 Diphtheria is especially dangerous for young children.10 Medical advice is recommended for the onset of symptoms. For further information regarding diphtheria and immunization, please speak with your healthcare provider.