Learn more about the condition

Before you head off on your travels make sure you consider which vaccinations you may need. Here we talk about diphtheria; what it is, how you can get it, the symptoms and what you can do to help prevent it.

What is diphtheria and how do you contract it?

Diphtheria is a contagious bacterial infection that affects the nose, throat and sometimes skin. It’s highly contagious and is usually contracted through close contact with someone who has the condition or is carrying it. It can be spread by coughing, sneezing or sharing belongings with someone who has the infection, such as bedding or clothing.

The infection is more common in Africa, South Asia and the former Soviet Union, where vaccinations aren’t widely available.

Signs and symptoms

Diphtheria symptoms are:

  • A thick grey-white coating at the back of the throat
  • High temperature or fever over 38°C or above
  • Sore throat
  • Problems breathing

Older people, or those with weakened immune systems, are more at risk of contracting diphtheria. The most serious cases can be fatal, so if you think you may have symptoms seek medical advice straight away.

Complications of diphtheria, such as breathing problems, inflammation of the heart or nervous system problems, are when people are most at risk. An estimated 5-10% who get the infection die from these types of complications.


The most effective way to prevent against diphtheria is through vaccination. The quicker a diagnosis is made, the better. If undiagnosed for too long it can lead to more serious complications.


In England it’s routine for children to be vaccinated against diphtheria. This is usually given in five doses, combined with other vaccines. 

How long does the diphtheria vaccination last?

Vaccinations should cover someone with adequate protection against diphtheria for the rest of their life. However, if travelling or working in countries where there’s a risk of diphtheria, it’s worth having a booster every 10 years. 

Our service

For a free assessment, expert advice and vaccinations, book an appointment online with Boots Travel Vaccinations and Health Advice Service. Ideally, this should be six to eight weeks before departure, but it’s never too late to seek advice if you're leaving sooner.