What is diphtheria, is it contagious, what are the symptoms of diphtheria, how common is the infection in the UK and is there a vaccine against it?

We have answered all of the fundamental questions around diphtheria - including how it spreads and its symptoms.

According to the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA), an increase of cases in diphtheria has been reported across Europe. It is likely that most of these infections were picked up in the country of origin, or whilst travelling to the UK as it is usually crowded.

As a result of this outbreak, the UKHSA has issued advice for how to prevent further spread of the infection and what to do if you do experience symptoms of diphtheria. To report side effects of the infection you can apply online via the Yellow Card Scheme, download and use the Yellow Card app via an Apple or Android phone or by calling the Yellow Card Scheme on 0800 731 6789; the phone line is available from Monday to Friday between 9am and 5pm.

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So what is diphtheria, how contagious is it and is there a vaccine? We have explained everything below for your information according to the NHS.

The National Health Service logo. (Pic credit: Scott Barbour / Getty Images)The National Health Service logo. (Pic credit: Scott Barbour / Getty Images)
The National Health Service logo. (Pic credit: Scott Barbour / Getty Images)

What is diphtheria and how contagious is it?

This is a highly contagious infection that affects the nose, throat and sometimes the skin.

There is a small risk of catching it if you travel to some parts of the world and it can be serious and sometimes even fatal, especially in children, if it is not treated urgently.

It can quickly cause breathing problems and can damage the heart and nervous system; the same bacteria can also result in severe ulcers on the skin, particularly on the legs.

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What are the symptoms of diphtheria and how common is it in the UK?

The main symptoms, which usually start two to five days from infection, include:

- A thick grey/white coating that may cover the back of your throat, nose and tongue

- A high temperature/fever

- Sore throat

- Swollen glands in your neck

- Difficulty breathing and swallowing

In countries with poor hygiene, infection of the skin is more common, this is called cutaneous diphtheria.

Cutaneous diphtheria can cause:

- Pus-filled blisters on your legs, feet and hands

- Large ulcers surrounded by red, painful skin

You must seek urgent help if you have symptoms of diphtheria and if you are in an area of the world where the infection is widespread, you have recently returned from somewhere where infection is widespread or if you have been in close contact with someone who has contracted diphtheria.

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It is vitally important that diphtheria is treated quickly in hospital to help prevent serious complications, such as breathing or heart problems.

Diphtheria is rare in the UK as babies and children have been regularly vaccinated against it since the 1940s.

Is there a travel vaccine against diphtheria?

Most cases of the infection come from those who travel to or from countries in the world where it is widespread. So being fully vaccinated against it ahead of your travel is crucial.

According to the NHS website, if you are travelling to a part of the world where diphtheria is more commonly spread, you may need a booster vaccination if you were last vaccinated against it more than 10 years ago.

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Places where diphtheria cases are on the rise often change over time, so it is important to keep updated on this list on the Travel Health Pro country guides.

You may be able to get a combined vaccine against diphtheria, tetanus and polio for free through the NHS.

How is diphtheria spread?

It is spread by coughs, sneezes or through close contact with someone who is infected.

You can also get it by sharing items, such as cups, cutlery, clothing or bedding with an infected person.

How can you treat diphtheria?

The main treatments for diphtheria are:

- Antibiotics

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- Medicines that stop the effects of the harmful toxins produced by the bacteria of the infection

- Extensively cleaning any infected wounds if you have diphtheria affecting your skin

Treatment usually lasts for two to three weeks and any skin ulcers usually recover within two to three months but may leave a scar.

It is likely that people who have been in close contact with someone who has diphtheria will have to take antibiotics or may be given a dose of the vaccine.

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