Diphtheria Immunisation, Diseases Vaccines Prevent

This page provides a brief summary of the disease and the vaccine that is available to prevent it. Links to more detailed information are provided at the bottom of the page.

What is diphtheria?

Diphtheria is a disease caused by bacteria called Corynebacterium Diphtheriae. These bacteria are found in the mouth, throat and nose of an infected person.

Diphtheria produces a powerful toxin (poison) which damages organs and tissues throughout the body. 

How do people get diphtheria?

The bacteria that cause diphtheria are found in the mouth, throat and nose of an infected person. These bacteria are easily spread to others by coughing or sneezing of droplets of moisture into the air.

What are the symptoms of diphtheria?

The first sign of diphtheria is usually a sore throat and finding it difficult to swallow.

Other common symptoms are a low grade fever, nausea, vomiting, headache and a fast heart rate.

Diphtheria can lead to difficulty in swallowing, breathlessness, heart failure and paralysis.

Complications include

  • Heart failure
  • Paralysis
  • Severe breathing problems
  • Difficulty in swallowing
  • Death.

Diphtheria is a serious illness. Of the people who get diphtheria 1 in 20 will die.

Who should get diphtheria vaccine?

Diphtheria can be prevented by vaccination.

Diphtheria vaccine is given to children as part of the 6 in 1 vaccine at 2, 4 and 6 months of age.

The 6 in 1 vaccine protects against Diphtheria, Hepatitis B, Hib (Haemophilus Influenzae b) Pertussis (Whooping Cough) Polio and Tetanus.

A booster vaccine dose is given at 4-5 years of age as part of the 4 in 1 vaccine which protects against Diphtheria, Pertussis (Whooping Cough), Polio and Tetanus infections.

Another booster dose is given in 1st year of second level school as part of the Tdap vaccine which boosts against Diphtheria, Pertussis (Whooping Cough) and Tetanus.

If your child requires vaccination, or you are unsure of your child’s vaccination status, contact your GP for advice.

It is very important to immunise against diphtheria as there have been cases of diphtheria reported in the UK and Belgium in 2023. There is a real risk of diphtheria coming back if children are not vaccinated. 

Who should not get the diphtheria vaccine?

There are very few people who should not get diphtheria vaccine. Your child should not get the vaccine if they have had a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) to a previous dose of the vaccine or any part of the vaccine. 

What to expect after getting diphtheria vaccine?

After getting the vaccine, your child may have discomfort, redness or swelling around the area where the injection was given. They may be irritable and have a fever.

If this happens you can give them paracetamol or ibuprofen. You should also give them plenty to drink. Make sure they are not too warm and that their clothes are not rubbing against the injection area.

Children usually recover from these minor side effects within a day or two

Of the children who are immunised;

  • 1 in 10 will have discomfort, redness and swelling where the injection was given or will have a fever.

Serious side effects are very rare.

How does diphtheria vaccine work?

Diphtheria vaccine protects children by providing immunity to the toxin that causes the symptoms of the illness, rather that immunity to the bacteria itself. As it acts on the toxin, it is called a toxoid.

How effective is the vaccine?

The full course of this vaccine offers good protection against diphtheria for 95% of people. People who have been immunised by diphtheria may still carry the bacteria in their throats. This means that, while they are protected they may still pass the bacteria on to people who have not been immunised and young babies. 

Find out more:

This page was updated on 23 August 2023