Childhood Vaccinations

Diphtheria Vaccine

Diphtheria affects the nose and throat and at first can feel like a severe sore throat.
Diphtheria affects the nose and throat and at first can feel like a severe sore throat.
©2006 Publications International, Ltd.

The early signs of diphtheria are so similar to a sore throat that it can go undetected. Read on to learn about the warning signs of this infection and why you should have your child vaccinated.

Diphtheria Basics

Diphtheria is caused by infection with the bacterium Corynebacterium diphtheriae, which spreads easily and quickly. It mainly affects the nose and throat. In its early stages, people may mistake diphtheria for a severe sore throat accompanied by a low-grade fever and swollen neck glands.

The C. diphtheriae bacterium creates a toxin that can lead to a thick coating in the nose, throat, or airway. This coating is easy to spot because of its unusual gray or black color. The toxin affects the throat and neck, as well as the heart and nervous system, and can cause:

  • A swollen neck (the "bull neck")
  • Breathing problems and swallowing difficulties
  • Slurred speech
  • Double vision
  • Disorders of the heart rhythm
  • Shock (rapid heartbeat and clammy, cold, and pale skin)

Even with proper treatment, diphtheria kills about 10 percent of those who contract it. Treatment with antibiotics and antitoxins often takes place in a hospital, and a ventilator may be needed to facilitate breathing.

Who's at Risk for Diphtheria

Children age 5 and younger are especially at risk for getting diphtheria with severe complications. Children who are malnourished, who live in crowded or unsanitary conditions, or who have not been immunized have an even greater risk.

Defensive Measures Against Diphtheria

Preventing diphtheria means immunizing your child with the diphtheria/tetanus/pertussis (DTP or DTaP) vaccine. Most cases of diphtheria occur in people who haven't received the vaccine or who haven't received the entire course of it. The disease is rarely diagnosed in the United States, but it occurs more frequently in developing countries.

The DTP or DTaP vaccine is given at 2, 4, and 6 months of age, with a booster given at 12 to 18 months of age and another when the child is between 4 and 6 years old. Booster shots should be given every ten years after age 6 to maintain protection. The amount of diphtheria toxoid (inactivated toxin) in the adult vaccine (Td vaccine) is lower.

Those infected by C. diphtheriae can transmit it to others for up to four weeks, even if they don't have any symptoms. Diphtheria is a highly contagious disease, so anyone who has it must be isolated to prevent its spread.

Because diphtheria is easily contracted through sneezing, coughing, laughing, or even sharing a drinking glass or toy, it's important to remain vigilant about hand washing, especially when children are sharing things. Sanitizing surfaces, utensils, and other items with hot water and soap or a bleach-based cleaner is essential.

If you're not sure if your child has been vaccinated against diphtheria, speak with your physician. You should also be sure your own booster immunizations are current. International studies have shown that a significant percentage of adults older than 40 aren't adequately protected against diphtheria.

German measles, or the rubella virus, spread very easily, so it's important to get your child vaccinated. Learn more about the rubella vaccination in the next section.

This information is solely for informational purposes. IT IS NOT INTENDED TO PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. Neither the Editors of Consumer Guide (R), Publications International, Ltd., the author nor publisher take responsibility for any possible consequences from any treatment, procedure, exercise, dietary modification, action or application of medication which results from reading or following the information contained in this information. The publication of this information does not constitute the practice of medicine, and this information does not replace the advice of your physician or other health care provider. Before undertaking any course of treatment, the reader must seek the advice of their physician or other health care provider.