Diagnosis and Treatment

Getting treatment quickly for diphtheria is important.

Doctors usually decide if a person has diphtheria by looking for common signs and symptoms. They can use a swab from the back of the throat and test it for the bacteria that cause diphtheria. A doctor can also take a sample from a skin lesion (like a sore) and try and grow the bacteria. If the bacteria grow, the doctor can be sure a patient has diphtheria.

It is important to start treatment right away if a doctor suspects diphtheria and not to wait for laboratory confirmation. In the United States, before there was treatment for diphtheria, up to half of the people who got the disease died from it.

Diphtheria treatment today involves:

  • Using diphtheria antitoxin to stop the poison (toxin) produced by the bacteria from damaging the body
  • Using antibiotics to kill and get rid of the bacteria

Even with treatment, about 1 in 10 people who gets diphtheria will die.

Doctors usually keep diphtheria patients in isolation until they are no longer contagious — this usually takes about 48 hours after starting antibiotics. After the patient finishes taking the antibiotic, the doctor will run tests to make sure the bacteria are not in the patient’s body anymore.

Page last reviewed: December 17, 2018