Symptoms of diphtheria 

The symptoms of diphtheria usually begin two to seven days after you become infected.

The time it takes for symptoms to develop is called the incubation period.

Symptoms of diphtheria can include:

  • a high temperature (fever) of 38ºC (100.4ºF) or above
  • chills
  • fatigue (extreme tiredness)
  • sore throat
  • hoarse voice
  • cough
  • headache
  • difficulty swallowing or pain when swallowing
  • difficulty breathing
  • foul-smelling, bloodstained nasal discharge
  • swollen glands (nodes) in the neck
  • pale, blue skin

If you have diphtheria, a grey-white membrane can develop inside your throat. It covers the back of your throat and tonsils and can obstruct your breathing. The membrane will bleed if you try to remove it.

Diphtheria that affects the skin

Diphtheria can occasionally affect the skin rather than the throat. This is known as cutaneous diphtheria.

If you have cutaneous diphtheria, you will develop pus-filled spots on your skin, usually on your legs, feet and hands. These blisters and spots will form into a large ulcer surrounded by a red patch of discoloured, sore-looking skin. The ulcer usually heals within two to three months, but it's likely to leave a scar.

Asymptomatic diphtheria

People who have been vaccinated against diphtheria won't develop any symptoms if they become infected (asymptomatic diphtheria). However, it's still possible for these people to spread the infection to others.

Page last reviewed: 15/03/2013

Next review due: 15/03/2015