Diphtheria is a contagious bacterial infection that was a common cause of death in Australian children until the 1940s when vaccines were rolled out nationally. This program boosted immunisation levels and caused the disease to almost disappear as more than 90% of children under the age of six were fully vaccinated as of 2021.

However, the first reported cases of diphtheria in Australia since the 1990s have now been reported, so it's important to take an in-depth look into this disease, what to keep an eye out for, and how to prevent it from spreading.

Just remember that if you need support or someone to talk to, our Sonder support team is available 24/7 to chat whenever you need it.

What is diphtheria?

Diphtheria is a contagious bacterial infection caused by the toxin-producing bacteria, Corynebacterium diphtheriae and Corynebacterium ulcerans. This toxin causes severe inflammation of membranes in the nose, throat, windpipe, and heart, resulting in nerve damage, heart failure, and paralysis. In some cases, the infection can be life-threatening.

How is diphtheria spread and who is at risk?

This infection lives in the mouth, nose, throat, or skin of infected individuals and can be spread by respiratory droplets expelled through coughing or sneezing. Bacteria can also be spread through close contact with discharges from an infectious individual's mouth, nose, throat, or skin, though this is rarer. A second, less common type of diphtheria occasionally occurs when an individual consumes unpasteurised milk or comes into contact with animals.

Without antibiotic treatment, people with the disease are infectious for up to four weeks from when symptoms first start showing. Some people can be infectious for longer.

While the risk of further spread of diphtheria in Australia is very low, those who aren't fully vaccinated are at risk of getting the disease.

Symptoms and signs

Symptoms usually begin two to five days after infection, but it can be as long as 10 days, though it depends on the location of the infection. Common symptoms can include:

  • Sore throat and hoarseness

  • Loss of appetite

  • Fever and chills

  • Nasal discharge

  • Fatigue

  • Skin sores that form larger ulcers, commonly on the legs

  • Swollen lymph nodes on the neck

The most serious form of diphtheria affects the throat and tonsils, and the first symptoms are usually a sore throat, loss of appetite, and mild fever. Within two to three days, a grey-white membrane forms over the throat and tonsils that makes it hard to swallow and breathe.

For serious cases of diphtheria, the toxin can also cause inflammation of heart muscle and nerves, which can be fatal in five to 10% of people infected.

How is diphtheria treated and prevented?

This infection is treated with diphtheria antibiotics and antitoxin to stop it from developing. A course of vaccination may be required if the individual is not immunised. For serious cases, the individual may be hospitalised and require surgery.

To prevent diphtheria, it's important to get vaccinated. This is part of the childhood immunisations and are given in combination with other vaccines known as the ‘DTP’ vaccine, which contains vaccines against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (whooping cough), as part of the National Immunisation Program.

If you or your child have symptoms of diphtheria, speak IMMEDIATELY to your doctor or call Triple Zero (000) for emergencies. If you need someone to speak to or not sure what to do, our Sonder support team is available 24/7 to chat and can help direct you to whatever medical assistance you need.

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If you have any questions or need extra support, we're here to help you anytime in any language. Simply start a chat with us via the home screen of the Sonder app.

Information sourced from: ABC, The Guardian, and NSW Health

Image credit: cottonbro at Pexels

All content is created and published for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional advice.

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