Diphtheria: Symptoms & Signs

  • Medical Author:
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

Medically Reviewed on 3/13/2019

Diphtheria is an infectious disease that spreads from person to person through respiratory droplets expelled during coughing and sneezing. Symptoms of the condition are largely due to an exotoxin produced by the bacteria that affects different organ systems.

Common associated symptoms and signs of diphtheria include sore throat, fever, and the development of an adherent membrane covering the tonsils and throat. Other symptoms can include difficulty breathing or shortness of breath, fever, chills, difficulty swallowing, hoarseness, swollen lymph nodes, headache, weakness, fatigue, and cough. Severe infections can involve other organ systems such as the heart and the nervous system, potentially resulting in heart failure and nerve damage. Skin infections are also possible with diphtheria. Complications of diphtheria may be severe enough to be fatal.

Cause of diphtheria

Infection with Corynebacterium diphtheria bacteria causes diphtheria.


Kasper, D.L., et al., eds. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 19th Ed. United States: McGraw-Hill Education, 2015.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 3/13/2019

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