Before antibiotics were available, diphtheria was a common illness in young children. Today, the disease is not only treatable but is also preventable with a vaccine.
The diphtheria vaccine is usually combined with vaccines for tetanus and whooping cough (pertussis). The three-in-one vaccine is known as the diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis vaccine. The latest version of this vaccine is known as the DTaP vaccine for children and the Tdap vaccine for adolescents and adults.
The diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis vaccine is one of the childhood immunizations that doctors in the United States recommend during infancy. Vaccination consists of a series of five shots, typically administered in the arm or thigh, given to children at these ages:
- 2 months
- 4 months
- 6 months
- 15 to 18 months
- 4 to 6 years
The diphtheria vaccine is effective at preventing diphtheria. But there may be some side effects. Some children may experience a mild fever, fussiness, drowsiness or tenderness at the injection site after a DTaP shot. Ask your doctor what you can do for your child to minimize or relieve these effects.
Rarely, the DTaP vaccine causes serious complications in a child, such as an allergic reaction (hives or a rash develops within minutes of the injection), seizures or shock — complications that are treatable.
Some children — such as those with epilepsy or another nervous system condition — may not be candidates for the DTaP vaccine.
After the initial series of immunizations in childhood, you need booster shots of the diphtheria vaccine to help you maintain immunity. That's because immunity to diphtheria fades with time.
Children who received all of the recommended immunizations before age 7 should receive their first booster shot at around age 11 or 12. The next booster shot is recommended 10 years later, then repeated at 10-year intervals. Booster shots are particularly important if you travel to an area where diphtheria is common.
The diphtheria booster is combined with the tetanus booster — the tetanus-diphtheria (Td) vaccine. This combination vaccine is given by injection, usually into the arm or thigh.
Tdap is a combined tetanus, diphtheria and acellular pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine. It’s a one-time alternative vaccine for adolescents age 11 through 18 and adults who haven't previously had a Tdap booster. It's also recommended for anyone who's pregnant, regardless of previous vaccination status.
Talk to your doctor about vaccines and booster shots if you're unsure of your vaccination status. Tdap may also be recommended as part of the Td series for children ages 7 through 10 who aren't up to date with the vaccine schedule.
Lifestyle and home remedies
Recovering from diphtheria requires lots of bed rest. Avoiding any physical exertion is particularly important if your heart has been affected. You may need to stay in bed for a few weeks or until you make a full recovery.
Strict isolation while you're contagious also is important to prevent spread of the infection. Careful hand-washing by everyone in your house helps prevent spread of the infection. Because of pain and difficulty swallowing, you may need to get your nutrition through liquids and soft foods for a while.
Once you recover from diphtheria, you'll need a full course of diphtheria vaccine to prevent a recurrence. Having diphtheria doesn't guarantee you lifetime immunity. You can get diphtheria more than once if you're not fully immunized against it.