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Diphtheria

Diphtheria (dif-THEER-ee-a) used to be a common cause of both illness and death for children in the United States. In the 1920s, the United States used to see as many as 200,000 cases a year. Thanks to diphtheria vaccines, that number has dropped by 99.9%.

There are 4 vaccines that include protection against diphtheria:

  • The DTaP vaccine protects young children from diphtheria, tetanus, and whooping cough
  • The DT vaccine protects young children from diphtheria and tetanus
  • The Tdap vaccine protects preteens, teens, and adults from tetanus, diphtheria, and whooping cough
  • The Td vaccine protects preteens, teens, and adults from tetanus and diphtheria

Diphtheria is now rare in the United States, but people still get the disease. And there have been large outbreaks in countries where vaccination rates have gone down.

Diphtheria can cause serious complications, like paralysis (not being able to move), pneumonia (lung infection), and lung failure. It can also be deadly, especially for certain age groups — up to 1 in 5 young children and older adults who get the disease will die from it.

Getting vaccinated is the best way to prevent diphtheria. And when enough people get vaccinated against diphtheria, the entire community is less likely to get it. So when you and your family get vaccinated, you help keep yourselves and your community healthy.

Learn more about how vaccines help protect your whole community.

Diphtheria is caused by a type of bacteria. It creates a thick coating of dead tissue in the throat or nose, which makes it hard to breathe and swallow. Other symptoms include:

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

Serious cases of diphtheria can damage the heart, kidney, and nerves.

Diphtheria spreads from person to person when:

  • Someone who has diphtheria sneezes or coughs
  • A person touches open sores of someone who has diphtheria — or an object that belongs to someone who has diphtheria, like a toy

Learn more about diphtheria.

Everyone needs diphtheria vaccines throughout their lives. That means everyone needs to get vaccinated as babies, children, and adults.

Infants and children birth through age 6

Young children need the DTaP vaccine as part of their routine vaccine schedule. Young children need a dose of the vaccine at:

  • 2 months
  • 4 months
  • 6 months
  • 15 through 18 months
  • 4 through 6 years

If your child has had a serious reaction to the whooping cough part of the DTaP vaccine, they may be able to get the DT vaccine instead. Your child’s doctor can recommend the vaccine that’s right for your child.

See the routine vaccination schedule for:

Preteens and teens ages 7 through 18

Older children need 1 booster shot of the Tdap vaccine at age 11 or 12 as part of their routine vaccine schedule.

If your child misses the booster shot, talk with your child’s doctor about catching up.

Adults age 19 and older

Adults need 1 booster shot of the Td vaccine every 10 years as part of their routine vaccine schedule.

If you missed the Tdap booster as a teen, you’ll need to get a Tdap booster instead to make sure you have protection from whooping cough.

Pregnant women

Pregnant women need 1 booster shot of the Tdap vaccine during the third trimester of each pregnancy.

Talk with your doctor about how to protect your family from diphtheria.

You should not get a diphtheria vaccine if you:

  • Have a life-threatening allergy to any ingredient in the vaccine
  • Have had a serious reaction to the diphtheria, tetanus, or whooping cough vaccines in the past

Be sure to tell your doctor before getting vaccinated if you:

  • Have seizures (sudden, unusual movements or behavior) or other nervous system problems
  • Had serious pain or swelling after any diphtheria, tetanus, or whooping cough vaccine
  • Have had Guillain-Barré Syndrome (an immune system disorder)

If you’re sick, you may need to wait until you’re feeling better to get a diphtheria vaccine.

Side effects are usually mild and go away in a few days. They may include:

  • Pain, swelling, or redness where the shot was given
  • Low fever and chills
  • Headache and body aches
  • Feeling tired
  • Upset stomach, throwing up, and diarrhea (watery poop)
  • Not feeling hungry
  • Fussing (in children)

It’s very rare, but the DTaP vaccine can also cause the following symptoms in children:

  • Seizures (about 1 child in 14,000)
  • Non-stop crying, for 3 hours or more (up to about 1 child in 1,000)
  • Fever higher than 105°F (about 1 child in 16,000)

Like any medicine, there's a very small chance that diphtheria vaccines could cause a serious reaction. Keep in mind that getting a diphtheria vaccine is much safer than getting diphtheria. Learn more about vaccine side effects.

Vaccine Information Statements (VISs) have detailed information about recommended vaccines. Read the VISs for vaccines that protect against diphtheria:

  • DTaP vaccine — protects against diphtheria, tetanus, and whooping cough (for infants and children)
  • Tdap vaccine — protects against diphtheria, tetanus, and whooping cough (for preteens, teens, and adults)
  • Td vaccine — protects against diphtheria and tetanus (for preteens, teens, and adults)

Find the VISs for these vaccines in other languages.

Last reviewed: January 2018