Skip directly to search Skip directly to A to Z list Skip directly to navigation Skip directly to page options Skip directly to site content


Photo of child with swollen neck due to diphtheria infection

A child with swollen neck due to diphtheria infection.

When the bacteria that cause diphtheria get into and attach to the lining of the respiratory system, which includes parts of the body that help you breathe, they produce a poison (toxin) that can cause:

  • Weakness
  • Sore throat
  • Fever
  • Swollen glands in the neck

The poison destroys healthy tissues in the respiratory system. Within two to three days, the dead tissue forms a thick, gray coating that can build up in the throat or nose. This thick gray coating is called a "pseudomembrane." It can cover tissues in the nose, tonsils, voice box, and throat, making it very hard to breathe and swallow.

The poison may also get into the blood stream and cause damage to the heart, kidneys, and nerves.

 Top of Page

Related Pages

  • Diphtheria Materials
  • Diphtheria for Parents: The Basics
    This fact sheet describes symptoms of infection, as well as benefits and risks of vaccination.
    English [2 pages]   |   Spanish [2 pages]
  • Diphtheria for Parents: In Depth
    This fact sheet offers information about recent diphtheria outbreaks and describes symptoms of infection, benefits and risks of vaccination, details about the vaccine, and history of the disease.
    English [2 pages]