Diphtheria Immunization Information

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Rite Aid is committed to bolstering your wellness by helping you to avoid serious disease like diphtheria. Diphtheria is caused by a toxin-producing bacterium called Corynebacterium diphtheriae, which attaches to the lining of the respiratory system, destroying healthy tissues.  It’s primary symptom is a thick covering in the back of the throat that can cause breathing difficulty, paralysis, heart failure, and in some instances, death.

Before a vaccine was discovered, up to 50% of those who contracted diphtheria died from this disease.  It was once especially devastating to children. Cases of diphtheria in the U.S. and other countries dropped significantly in the 1920s when the vaccine became widely available. There have been less than five recorded U.S. cases of diphtheria reported to the CDC in the last 10 years. But the disease is still a problem around the globe. In 2014, there were still 7,321 cases of diphtheria reported to the World Health Organization (WHO), however, there are probably many more that are never reported.

How does Diphtheria spread?

The primary method of diphtheria transmission from person-to-person is through respiratory droplets produced from sneezing and coughing. On rare occasions, spreading may be the result of contact with lesions or sores on the skin of an infected individual, or contact with contaminated clothing due to lesion discharge from an infected individual.

Diphtheria can also be contracted via contact with an object (e.g. a toy) that has been contaminated with bacteria that can cause diphtheria.

What are the symptoms of Diphtheria?

The initial symptoms of diphtheria infection include:

  • Fever
  • Weakness
  • Sore throat
  • Swollen glands in the neck

Within 2-3 days of infection, the toxin produced by the diphtheria bacteria kills body tissues causing a thick, gray coating (known as a “pseudomembrane”)  to build up in the nose, nasal tissues, throat, tonsils, voice box and throat , making it very difficult to breathe and swallow.

In some instances, the toxin can enter the blood stream and harm the kidneys, nerves, and even the heart.

How is Diphtheria prevented?

Vaccination is the most effect way to avoid diphtheria. Diphtheria vaccine is traditionally administered in the U.S. combined with vaccines for tetanus and/or pertussis (whooping cough).

Infants and children under six years old normally receive the diphtheria immunization via five doses of DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis) vaccine, or the DT (diphtheria and tetanus) vaccine for those children who cannot tolerate the pertussis vaccine.

Preteens should get a booster shot of Tdap at 11 or 12 years old. Those who do not should get a Tdap shot at their next doctor visit.

In adulthood, the Td vaccine should be administered once every ten years. A Tdap dose should be substituted for a dose of Td once, followed by Td boosters every ten years thereafter.   

One dose of Tdap vaccine should be administered to pregnant women during each pregnancy (preferably during 27–36 weeks’ gestation) regardless of interval since prior Td or Tdap vaccination.

What are the treatments for Diphtheria?

If you suspect you may have diphtheria, receiving treatment as quickly as possible is vital.

Review of signs and symptoms is usually the first step in diagnosing diphtheria. Testing for bacteria that cause diphtheria is done by taking a swab specimen from the throat, skin lesion or sore. DO NOT WAIT FOR LAB RESULTS. If you or your doctor suspects diphtheria, treatment should begin immediately.

Treatment for diphtheria includes:

  • Diphtheria antitoxin. This neutralizes the bacteria-produced toxin.
  • Antibiotics. These will kill and eliminate diphtheria-causing bacteria.

Typically after 48 hours of antibiotic treatment, people suffering from diphtheria are no longer able to spread the disease to others. Prior to those 48 hours, patients must be kept in isolation. A doctor will test the patient for presence of the bacteria after the course of antibiotics has been completed to ensure the patient is free of the bacteria.

What is the Diphtheria vaccine?

The diphtheria vaccine is only found in combination with other vaccines.  It is available with the tetanus and pertussis vaccines in two formulations – the Diphtheria, Tetanus and Pertussis Vaccine (DTaP) and the Tetanus, Diphtheria and Pertussis Vaccine (Tdap).  It is also available with the tetanus vaccine alone in two formulations - the Tetanus and Diphtheria Vaccine (Td) and the Diphtheria and Tetanus Vaccine (DT).