Pediatric Diphtheria Medication

Updated: May 02, 2019
  • Author: Cem S Demirci, MD; Chief Editor: Russell W Steele, MD  more...
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Medication Summary

Diphtheria antitoxin is the mainstay of therapy. It likely has no value in local manifestations of cutaneous diphtheria, but its use is prudent because toxic sequelae can occur, causing rapid deterioration of the patient. Follow with administration of appropriate diphtheria toxoid for active immunization during convalescence.

Appropriate antibiotic therapy should be administered simultaneously with the antitoxin. Not recommended for asymptomatic carriers.

The antitoxin is only available from the CDC. For more information regarding acquisition, see the CDC website for diphtheria antitoxin.


Antibiotic agents

Class Summary

Antimicrobial therapy is indicated to halt toxin production, treat localized infection, and prevent transmission of the organism to patient contacts. C diphtheriae is usually susceptible to various agents in vitro, including penicillin, erythromycin, clindamycin, rifampin, and tetracycline. Resistance to erythromycin is common in closed populations if the drug has been used broadly.

Penicillin and erythromycin are only recommended for treatment. Erythromycin is marginally superior to penicillin for eradication of nasopharyngeal infection. Antibiotic therapy is not a substitute for antitoxin therapy. Elimination of the organism should be documented by at least 2 successive cultures from the nose and throat (or skin) obtained 24 h apart after completion of therapy. Treatment with erythromycin is repeated if culture results remain positive.

Penicillin G, aqueous crystalline (Pfizerpen)

Interferes with synthesis of cell wall mucopeptide during active multiplication, resulting in bactericidal activity against susceptible microorganisms.

Penicillin G procaine

Long-acting parenteral penicillin (IM only) to treat moderately severe infections caused by penicillin G–sensitive microorganisms.

Penicillin G benzathine (Bicillin L-A, Permapen)

Administered only IM. A tissue depot is created at the site of IM injection and slowly releases active drug into the systemic circulation. Penicillin serum concentrations are lower but more prolonged with the benzathine form than with the procaine form; serum levels of penicillin G are detected for as many as 30 d following administration.

Erythromycin (E.E.S., Ery-Tab)

Inhibits bacterial growth, possibly by blocking dissociation of peptidyl tRNA from ribosomes causing RNA-dependent protein synthesis to arrest.


Antipyretic agents

Class Summary

These agents inhibit central synthesis and release of prostaglandins that mediate the effect of endogenous pyrogens in the hypothalamus; thus, they promote the return of the set-point temperature to normal.

Ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin)

One of the few NSAIDs indicated for reduction of fever.

Acetaminophen (Tylenol, FeverAll, Tempra)

Reduces fever by acting directly on hypothalamic heat-regulating centers, which increases dissipation of body heat via vasodilation and sweating.



Class Summary

Active immunization increases resistance to infection. Vaccines consist of microorganisms or cellular components that act as antigens. Administration of the vaccine stimulates the production of antibodies with specific protective properties.

Universal immunization is the only effective control measure. Diphtheria toxoid is typically combined with tetanus and acellular pertussis for children younger than 7 years. In children and adults, the immunization may be administered into deltoid or midlateral thigh muscles. In infants, the preferred site of administration is the midlateral thigh muscles. A specific formulation, Tdap, is recommended for adolescents and adults. [8, 9, 10, 11]

Diphtheria & tetanus toxoids/ acellular pertussis vaccine (Daptacel, Infanrix, DTaP)

Part of routine immunization schedule for infants and young children. May be administered into deltoid or midlateral thigh muscles in children and adults. In infants, preferred site of administration is the midlateral thigh muscles.

Tetanus & reduced diphtheria toxoids/ acellular pertussis vaccine (Adacel, Boostrix, Tdap)

Tetanus toxoid, reduced diphtheria toxoid, and acellular pertussis vaccine. Promotes active immunity to diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis by inducing production of specific neutralizing antibodies and antitoxins. Indicated for active booster immunization for tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis prevention for persons aged 10-64 y (Adacel approved for patients aged 10-64 y, Boostrix approved for 10 y or older). Preferred vaccine for adolescents scheduled for booster.