Diphtheria is an acute infectious disease affecting the upper respiratory tract, and sometimes the skin. It's caused by the action of diphtheria toxin produced by toxogenic:

  • Corynebacterium diphtheriae
  • Corynebacterium ulcerans

Occasionally, Corynebacterium pseudotuberculosis can also cause diphtheria.

The most characteristic features of diphtheria affecting the upper respiratory tract are:

  • membranous pharyngitis with fever
  • enlarged lymph nodes
  • swelling of soft tissue

This swelling may then cause respiratory obstruction.

Visit the NHS for England website for more information about diphtheria symptoms and treatment and the NHS Inform website for vaccination information.

Data and surveillance

Diphtheria is a notifiable disease and toxic Corynebacterium diphtheriae and Corynebacterium ulcerans are notifiable organisms under The Public Health etc. (Scotland) Act 2008.

In Scotland, the classical respiratory disease is now very rare and skin infections aren't reported very often.

Report cases of infection with our surveillance forms for toxin-producing Corynebacterium.


In the early 1940s vaccination against diphtheria was introduced. Diphtheria vaccine is still included in the UK childhood immunisation schedule, with routine primary vaccination recommended at eight, twelve and sixteen weeks, followed by a booster dose from age three years four months and a further booster from 13 to 18 years.

View our latest diphtheria vaccination uptake statistics.