Common questions about diphtheria

What is diphtheria?

Diphtheria is a serious bacterial infection that impacts the nose, throat and skin, and can cause severe breathing problems, heart failure, paralysis and even death.

About one in 10 people who get diphtheria die.

Diphtheria can be easily spread through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes, and also through direct contact with an infected person. Diphtheria infection also spreads to children if they touch toys or other things that someone with diphtheria has handled and then rub their eyes or mouths.

Before immunization, diphtheria was the most common cause of death in Canadian children aged one to five.

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What causes diphtheria?

Diphtheria is caused by a bacteria. This bacteria causes infection of the nose and throat, and can lead to severe breathing problems, heart failure, paralysis and even death.

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What are the symptoms of diphtheria?

After being exposed to diphtheria, some children may not immediately look or feel sick. After about two to five days, most children will develop a sore throat, fever and chills, and swelling of the throat that can cause difficulty swallowing. A thick grey membrane will also develop at the back of an infected child’s nose, mouth and/or throat.

If infected with diphtheria, your child can suffer from suffocation, paralysis, heart failure, coma and even death.

One in 10 children infected with diphtheria will die.

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What can happen to my child if he or she gets diphtheria?

Diphtheria is particularly serious for infants and children. Diphtheria causes a thick coating on the back of the throat that can cause breathing problems for your child. Diphtheria can also damage your child's heart and nervous system and cause paralysis and even death. Babies are at particular risk of complications from diphtheria.

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Is there a treatment or cure for diphtheria?

Antibiotics can be used to treat diphtheria infections but, sadly, even with treatment, one in 10 people who get diphtheria will die.

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What is the name of the immunization that includes protection against diphtheria?

The DTaP-IPV-Hib, DTaP-IPV and dTaP vaccines will protect your child – or “arm” your child – against diphtheria.

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At what age should my child be immunized against diphtheria?

To be protected against diphtheria, your child needs multiple doses of the DTaP-IPV-Hib, DTaP-IPV and dTaP vaccines, at the ages and stages recommended in the routine schedule.

Your child is recommended to receive the DTaP-IPV-Hib vaccine at two months of age, followed by a dose at four months of age, at six months of age, and at 18 months of age. 

Your child will then need a dose of the DTaP-IPV vaccine between four and six years of age.

Finally, your child will need a dose of the dTaP vaccine between 14 and 16 years of age.

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Are there side effects to the diphtheria vaccine?

Side effects of the diphtheria vaccine are usually very mild, and temporary. Your child may have a slight fever, be fussy, sleepier or have less appetite than usual, and his or her arm or thigh might be a bit red or sore where the needle went in. These side effects are very common, usually happen about 12 to 24 hours after the immunization, and usually go away within a few days. For tips on managing symptoms following immunization, click here.

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Is this disease called any other names?

Diphtheria used to be called “Bull Neck” due to the severe and potentially deadly swelling in the neck that is caused by this disease.

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