Te whakapokenga korokoro Diphtheria

Diphtheria is a serious infectious disease. It can cause throat infections that can lead to breathing difficulties. It can also cause skin infections. Diphtheria is rare in Aotearoa New Zealand due to immunisation.

How diphtheria spreads

Diphtheria is highly contagious. It spreads easily by coughs and sneezes, or through close contact with someone who is infected.

The bacteria can also spread through contaminated objects or food.

It has also, on rare occasions, been found in ink used in traditional tattooing, including in the South Pacific.

Symptoms of diphtheria

Diphtheria can affect either the throat or the skin. Many people have no symptoms.

When diphtheria affects your throat it can cause:

  • thick, grey-white coating at the back of the throat which can block breathing and cause death
  • fever
  • sore throat
  • headache
  • difficulty breathing
  • difficulty swallowing
  • bad breath
  • sleepiness
  • throat and neck swelling caused by swollen glands known as a ‘bull neck’
  • bark-like cough.

If diphtheria affects your skin, it can cause:

  • pus-filled blisters on the skin
  • large ulcers surrounded by red, sore-looking skin.

Complications from diphtheria

While some cases may be mild, diphtheria bacteria can make dangerous toxins that cause severe complications. The complications can be life-threatening.

Complications include:

  • heart issues or failure
  • paralysis
  • kidney failure
  • death.

5 to 10% of people with diphtheria throat symptoms die. Up to 1 in 5 people who are under 5 or over 40 years old die.

Diagnosing diphtheria

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and examine you for signs of diphtheria.

A healthcare provider might take a sample from your throat, nose or an open sore to see if it has the diphtheria toxin. This can take time so they might start treatment before the results are back.

Staying home

If you have diphtheria or have been in contact with someone with diphtheria, public health services will contact you to tell you what you need to do. They will support you with advice on how to keep yourself and your whānau safe during your illness. 

You may have to stay home from school, work, and early childhood services, and avoid close contact with previously unexposed people.

If you do not hear from them, phone Healthline for more information. 

Call Healthline: 0800 611 116 

Treating diphtheria

The main treatments for diphtheria are:

  • antibiotics to kill the bacteria
  • medicine (antitoxin) to stop the effects of the toxins produced by the bacteria
  • thoroughly cleaning infected wounds.

Preventing diphtheria

The best protection from diphtheria is immunisation.

Find out more abut diphtheria immunisation, who needs it, and how to get it.