What is Diptheria?

Diphtheria is a highly contagious and potentially fatal infection that can affect the nose and throat, and sometimes the skin.

Babies and children are routinely vaccinated against it during childhood. However, diphtheria still occurs in many areas, including Asia, the South Pacific, the Middle East, eastern Europe and the Caribbean.

How is it spread?

Diphtheria is highly contagious; and is spread by coughs and sneezes, or through close contact with someone who is infected. You can also get diptheria by sharing items, such as cups, cutlery, clothing or bedding, with an infected person.


Symptoms usually start 2 to 5 days after becoming infected. The main symptoms are:

  • a thick grey-white coating at the back of your throat
  • a high temperature of 38C or above
  • feeling sick
  • sore throat
  • headache
  • swollen glands in your neck
  • difficulty breathing and swallowing

Cutaneous diphtheria (affecting your skin) can result in:

  • pus-filled blisters on your legs, feet and hands
  • large ulcers surrounded by red, sore-looking skin

It is vital that you get urgent medical help if you have symptoms of diphtheria if you:

  • are in an area of widespread infection is 
  • have recently returned from an area of infection 
  • have been in close contact with someone who has diphtheria

Diphtheria needs to be treated quickly in hospital to help prevent serious complications.


Untreated diptheria can result in serious complications such as breathing difficulties or heart problems.


The main treatments for diptheria are:

  • antibiotics 
  • medicines that stop the effects of the harmful substances (toxins) produced by the bacteria
  • thoroughly cleaning any infected wounds if you have diphtheria affecting your skin

Treatment usually lasts 2 to 3 weeks. Any skin ulcers usually heal within 2 to 3 months, but may leave a scar.

People who have been in close contact with someone who has diphtheria may also need to take antibiotics, or may be given a dose of the diphtheria vaccination.


The best way to avoid diphtheria  is to be fully vaccinated against it. If you are travelling to a part of the world where diphtheria is widespread, you may need a booster vaccination if you were last vaccinated against it more than 10 years ago.

For further information, contact the Infection Prevention and Control Department at St Bernard’s Hospital

Telephone: 20072266 Ext 2315
Email: infections@gha.gi