Page last updated: 23 February 2016

Diphtheria is a highly contagious and potentially life-threatening bacterial disease that usually affects the upper respiratory tract, but can also infect the skin. In the early 1900s, diphtheria caused more deaths in Australia than any other infectious disease. Increasing use of vaccines has led to its virtual disappearance. No vaccinated person has died from diphtheria in Australia in the last 20 years.


Toxins produced by the Corynebacterium diphtheriae bacteria affect the respiratory tract (lung and windpipe) and, less commonly, damaged skin. Toxins also affect nervous system, adrenal gland, and heart muscle cells. Diphtheria is transmitted by breathing in droplets from an infected person when they cough or sneeze, or by direct contact with wounds and materials soiled by infected persons. About one in 15 people who contract diphtheria die from it.


It usually takes between two and five days after infection for symptoms to show. Diphtheria mainly affects the nose, throat and tonsils, but skin can also become infected. The bacteria form a ‘membrane’ of dead white blood cells in the upper respiratory tract, causing a sore throat and severe breathing difficulties. The release of the diphtheria toxin in the blood can cause nerve paralysis and heart failure.


Diphtheria is a vaccine preventable disease. Immunisation with a DTPa-containing (diphtheria-tetanus-acellular pertussis) vaccine is the best way to reduce the risk of diphtheria in children. The combination vaccine, recommended as part of routine childhood immunisation, is free under the National Immunisation Program Schedule. To receive diphtheria immunisation, visit your local doctor or immunisation provider. It is important to note that the vaccine is provided at no cost, although a consultation fee may apply.

Doses of vaccine are given at two, four and six months of age in a combination vaccine with DTPa (diphtheria-tetanus-whooping cough), with booster doses at 18 months, four years and 10-15 years (dTpa). Immunisation against diphtheria is delivered as a combination vaccine, usually with tetanus and whooping cough (pertussis).

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