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Diphtheria Vaccine Side Effects

The most common diphtheria vaccine side effects are injection-site reactions (10-50%). Up to 30% of children develop fevers. Less-common side effects include nerve damage, seizures, severe allergic reactions, and more.

What is the diphtheria vaccine?

Image of hand holding a piece of paper with the word Diphtheria

Diphtheria vaccines are usually combined with vaccines against tetanus and pertussis (whooping cough). The diphtheria vaccine contains a toxoid, which is a modified bacterial toxin that triggers the body to respond and develop immunity to diphtheria.

There are four types of immunizations:

  • DTaP — diphtheria, tetanus, acellular pertussis
  • DT — diphtheria, tetanus
  • Tdap — tetanus, diphtheria, acellular pertussis
  • Td — tetanus, diphtheria

Diphtheria is included in DTaP or DT vaccines that are given in 5 separate doses to children starting at 2 months old. Teenagers over 13 and adults receive booster shots of Tdap or Td every 10 years.

Is the diphtheria vaccine safe?

Yes. The diphtheria vaccine is one of the oldest and safest vaccines available. Severe reactions are extremely rare. There are no reported major allergic reactions (anaphylaxis) to the diphtheria component, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).

It is challenging to figure out what side effects are specifically caused by the diphtheria part of a “combination” vaccine like DTaP, but there is evidence that diphtheria vaccines can cause Brachial Neuritis or Guillain-Barré Syndrome (GBS) in about 1 in 1,000,000 vaccinations.

Do some vaccines have a higher risk of side effects?

Yes. Diphtheria vaccines are combined with vaccines against other diseases, and some are safer than others. For example, DTP vaccines are no longer used because they caused more side effects than DTaP with an “acellular” pertussis component.

What is the most common side effect?

Up to 50% of people who get the diphtheria vaccine experience minor side effects where the shot was given, such as swelling or pain. These reactions become more common as the number of vaccine doses increases, and when it is combined with tetanus or pertussis vaccines. Large, local reactions occur after 1-2% of DTaP vaccine booster shots.

What are common diphtheria vaccine side effects?

  • Pain, redness, or swelling (10-50%)
  • Fever over 100°F (20-30% after doses 1-3 of DTaP)
  • Tiredness
  • Irritability or fussiness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Vomiting
  • Persistent crying
  • Headache
  • Weakness
  • Muscle aches
  • Enlarged lymph nodes
  • Upset stomach

What are severe diphtheria vaccine side effects?

A variety of vaccines containing diphtheria toxoids have been linked to the following severe side effects:

  • Large swelling reactions (2-6% after doses 4-5 of DTaP)
  • Seizure, jerking or staring (1 in 14,000)
  • Fever over 105°F (about 1 child out of 16,000)
  • Nonstop crying for 3 hours or more (1 in 1,000 children)
  • Severe allergic reaction (less than 1 out of a million)
  • Long-term seizures
  • Coma
  • Lowered consciousness
  • Permanent brain damage
  • Anaphylaxis or anaphylactic shock
  • Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS)
  • Ascending paralysis
  • Thrombocytopenia
  • Encephalopathy
  • Epilepsy
  • Progressive neurologic disorder
  • Hypotonic-hyporesponsive episode (HHE)
  • Brachial neuritis (nerve inflammation)
  • Death

Can the vaccine cause diphtheria?


When should I call a doctor?

You should call 9-1-1 or seek emergency medical attention for:

  • Redness or swelling at the injection-site lasts longer than 48 hours
  • Your child under 3 months of age had a fever over 100.4°F
  • Any fever lasting longer than 48 hours after the shot
  • Any unusual reaction
  • Symptoms of an allergic reaction (breathing problems, hives, fast heartbeat, wheezing, paleness, weakness
  • Seizure
  • Behavior changes (unconsciousness, confusion, excessive sleepiness, not responding to touch or talking, etc.)

Should I worry about other ingredients?

Another controversy over diphtheria vaccines are low levels of toxic ingredients like aluminum, formaldehyde, and thimerosal (mercury). You probably consume higher levels in food, water, and breathing.

Aluminum is used in vaccines to trigger a stronger immune response and boost immunity. It slightly increases the risk of side effects where the shot was given. There is no evidence for neurotoxic effects in humans from vaccines.

Formaldehyde is known to cause cancer in large doses, but diphtheria vaccines contain extremely small amounts that are unlikely to cause side effects. It has been used to sterilize diphtheria vaccines since the 1920s.

Thimerosal is a mercury-based preservative in diphtheria vaccines. Unlike mercury found in fish,

thimerosal does not stay in the body and it has been used safely in vaccines since the 1930s. It hasn’t been used in any vaccines for children since 2001, including DTaP and DT.

Where can I get more information?

Vaccine Side Effects & Injury Lawyers

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If you or a loved one has been the victim of a vaccine side effect, you should contact a vaccine lawyer with experience in this type of complex litigation.

We have recently partnered with Schmidt & Clark, LLP; a Nationally recognized law firm who handles vaccine lawsuits in all 50 states.

The lawyers at the firm offer a Free Confidential Case Evaluation and may be able to obtain financial compensation for you or a loved one by filing a vaccine lawsuit or claim with The National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program. Contact Schmidt & Clark today by using the form below or by calling them directly at (866) 223-3784.

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