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.

For general information and symptoms please visit the NHS website.


For all infection prevention and control guidance visit the A-Z ‚Äčpathogens section of the National Infection and Prevention Control Manual.

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.

There are three different surveillance forms available for infection with toxin producing Corynebacterium and these can be viewed below:


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.

Information on diphtheria vaccination uptake statistics are published by Public Health Scotland Data and Intelligence.