Before antibiotics were available, diphtheria was a common illness in young children. Today, the disease is not only treatable but also preventable with a vaccine.
The diphtheria vaccine is usually combined with vaccines for tetanus and whopping cough (pertussis). Tetanus is a bacterial infection that leads to stiffness of the jaw and other muscles. Whooping cough is a bacterial infection of the respiratory tract. The three-in-one vaccine is known as the diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis, or DTP, vaccine. The latest version of this immunization is known as the DTaP vaccine.
The diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis vaccine is one of the childhood immunizations that doctors recommend begin during infancy. The vaccine consists of a series of five shots, typically administered in the arm or thigh, and given to children at ages:
The diphtheria vaccine is very effective at preventing diphtheria. But there may be some side effects. Some children may experience a mild fever, fussiness, drowsiness or tenderness at the site of the injection after a diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis shot. Ask your doctor what you can do for your child to minimize or relieve these effects.
Rarely, the diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis 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 which are treatable.
Some children — such as those with progressive brain disorders — may not be candidates for the diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis vaccine. But, the number of children to whom these restrictions apply is small.
You can't get diphtheria from the vaccine.
The first booster shot is needed around age 12, and then every 10 years after that — especially if you travel to an area where diphtheria is common. Ask your doctor whether you're up-to-date on your immunizations. Be sure your child is as up-to-date as possible on childhood vaccinations before starting child care or school.
A booster shot of the diphtheria vaccine is given in combination with a booster shot of the tetanus vaccine. The tetanus-diphtheria (Td) vaccine is given by injection, usually into the arm or thigh.
Doctors recommend that anyone over the age of 7 who has never been vaccinated against diphtheria receive three doses of the Td vaccine.
Recovering from diphtheria requires lots of bed rest. You may need to stay in bed for up to six weeks or until you make a full recovery. Rest is particularly important if your heart has been affected. Strict isolation while you're still contagious also is important to prevent spread of the infection. Careful hand washing by everyone in your house also is a good way to help avoid spread of the infection. Because of the 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. This is to prevent a recurrence of the disease. Having diphtheria doesn't guarantee you lifetime immunity. You can get diphtheria more than once if you're not fully immunized against it.