Treating diphtheria 

If diphtheria is suspected, you will be immediately admitted to an isolation ward in hospital to stop the infection spreading to other people.

If the grey-white membrane is making it difficult for you to breathe, some or all of it will be removed.

A diphtheria infection is treated using two types of medication:

  • antibiotics to kill the diphtheria bacteria
  • antitoxins to neutralise the effects of the toxin produced by the bacteria

Most people who have diphtheria require a 14-day course of antibiotics. After this time, you'll have tests to find out if all the bacteria have gone. If diphtheria bacteria are still present, you may need to continue taking antibiotics for another 10 days.

Once you have completed the treatment, you won't be infectious to other people. However, you won't be able to leave the isolation ward until tests show that you're completely free of infection.

You should have the diphtheria vaccination after you've been treated, because having diphtheria doesn't always stop you getting the infection again.

Testing and treating close contacts

Anyone who has had close contact with you, such as family or household members, visitors and anyone you have kissed or had sex with, should visit their GP immediately to be checked for signs of diphtheria.

Testing for diphtheria involves taking a sample of cells from the nose to test for the diphtheria bacteria. Your close contacts will be prescribed antibiotics. It's very important that they finish the course. If necessary, they will also be given a booster dose of the diphtheria vaccination.

Any healthcare workers who have cared for someone with diphtheria may also need to be tested and treated.

The risk of catching diphtheria from work colleagues or school friends is very low.

Cutaneous diphtheria

Cutaneous diphtheria is diphtheria that affects the skin rather than the throat. It's treated by thoroughly washing any wounds infected with soap and water. You'll be tested two weeks later to make sure that all of the bacteria have gone.

Page last reviewed: 16/02/2015

Next review due: 30/06/2017