Whooping cough, known medically as pertussis, may sound like an old-fashioned disease. But pertussis is on the rise in the United States.57 Experts estimate that between 800,000 and 3.3 million adult and adolescent cases of pertussis occur every year.56 The childhood pertussis vaccine is called DTaP. The adult and adolescent booster vaccine is called Tdap. Both vaccinate against pertussis, tetanus, and diphtheria.
Whooping cough, or pertussis, is a highly contagious, bacterial disease. It starts like a common cold, with a runny nose, sneezing, and maybe a mild cough. But unlike the common cold, the cough can become severe making it difficult to catch one's breath and resulting in the whoop-like sound. The cough can last weeks and result in cracked ribs, pneumonia, and hospitalization.57 Pertussis is especially serious for infants. 92% of reported pertussis deaths occur among babies younger than 4 months of age, who are too young to be fully immunized.25
Pertussis has been getting more attention lately because new cases occur across the country every week.26 In recent years, 92% of whooping cough deaths have occurred in infants younger than 4 months of age, who are too young to be fully immunized and the most vulnerable.25
Very often, a parent, sibling, or another family member is the source of an infant's whooping cough. In fact, researchers have found that, when the source can be identified, up to 83% of babies caught the disease from family members—another reason it's important for your family to be vaccinated.53
The pertussis vaccines, DTaP (for infants and children) and Tdap (for adolescents and adults), also protect against diphtheria and tetanus:
In pre-vaccine days, pertussis was a major source of illness and death among infants and children, with hundreds of thousands of cases reported each year in the United States, along with thousands of deaths. The number of cases dropped dramatically to about 1000 in 1976, thanks to vaccination.25
Pertussis can cause violent coughing spells that can make it hard for an infant to eat, drink, or breathe.72 In fact, most pertussis deaths occur among unvaccinated infants younger than 4 months of age.84
The DTaP vaccine, which is used in infants and children to help protect against pertussis, is given as a series of 5 injections during the first 4-6 years of life.111Back to top
Young children are given the DTaP vaccine, which helps protect them against diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis, but that protection wears off as they get older. That is why your preteen needs a booster shot known as Tdap.51
Vaccinating your adolescent will help protect infants in his or her life, too. Adolescents can spread diseases, such as whooping cough, to infants, who are too young to be vaccinated. In fact, whooping cough is often spread by household members and it can be deadly for infants. So if you have a baby in the house, making sure your adolescent is vaccinated helps protect your little one.53,25Back to top
Because pertussis may feel like a regular cold at first, an adult may not know they have it and then pass it on to someone in their family.111
By helping to protect yourself from pertussis, you'll also be protecting the infants in your life. By 24 months of age, 1 in 5 children have not received their fourth dose of DTaP vaccine.112 This leaves children 6 months behind the recommended immunization schedule and vulnerable to potentially devastating diseases.113
In addition, any pertussis vaccine you received as a child may have worn off, so you too are vulnerable. This is why the CDC recommends that adults receive a Tdap shot, especially if they are going to be around infants younger than 12 months of age.111
Like any kind of medicine or medical treatment, DTaP vaccine and Tdap vaccine can cause mild side effects. Serious side effects, however, are extremely rare. When you think about it, having pertussis, diphtheria or tetanus would cause many more problems than getting the DTaP vaccine or Tdap vaccine.34
There are some minor side effects that could occur with DTaP vaccine. These side effects could include a fever or redness, swelling or soreness where the shot was given. The odds of a child having any of these minor side effects is about 1 in 4. However, the odds a child will have a serious allergic reaction to DTaP vaccine is less than 1 in 1 million.34
The Tdap vaccine has some common side effects that vary from person to person. These side effects may be noticeable, but usually not enough to interfere with daily activities.
Here's a list of some common Tdap side effects and the likelihood they may occur:
While no one wants to experience any kind of side effects, keep in mind that the chances an adult or an adolescent will have a severe allergic reaction from a Tdap vaccine are extremely low: less than 1 in 1 million.34 To help put that in perspective: a child is almost 100 times more likely to get struck by lightning.2
On June 22, 2011, the CDC's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) recommended that pregnant women who have not received Tdap vaccine previously should receive pertussis-containing vaccine late in the second trimester or any time during the third trimester of pregnancy. The goal of vaccinating pregnant women is to protect their newborns from contracting pertussis in the first few months of life.114 To learn more about this update, talk to your health-care provider, and read more about the ACIP recommendation.
People who will be spending time with the infant should also be encouraged to get either DTaP or Tdap, whichever is appropriate for their age. This includes nannies, family members, and others.115
Different pertussis-containing vaccines are given to persons of different ages. The DTaP vaccine is given to infants as a series of shots, and helps protect against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis. The Tdap vaccine is a one-time booster shot for adolescents and adults to help extend the immunity provided by the DTaP vaccines they received as children. If you're not sure you or a loved one needs to get vaccinated against pertussis, talk to your health-care professional.
Both the DTaP and Tdap vaccine can be given at your health-care provider's office or a nearby community health clinic.
The DTaP vaccine is given as a series of 5 shots. Infants should get the DTaP vaccine in accordance with the CDC's childhood immunization schedule. Here's an overview of when each dose of DTaP should be given:
The Tdap booster is given as a single shot, usually in the arm. Timing of getting a Tdap vaccine depends on the person's age and situation, but it's especially important for families and caregivers of infants to get a Tdap vaccine:
The cost of DTaP and Tdap may be covered by your health insurance. If not, or if you don't have health insurance, some offices or local health clinics may be able to give you vaccines at a lower cost. You may also be eligible for the CDC's Vaccines for Children program. Visit the Vaccines for Children Web site for more information.
Before pertussis vaccines became widely used, the disease was so contagious that almost all children developed whooping cough and thousands died every year.30 While this is no longer the case, pertussis is still a very serious threat. In the recent decade, two epidemics occurred, along with frequent outbreaks. For example, during the epidemic of 2010, California had the most pertussis cases reported in 65 years: 9120 cases, including 10 infant deaths.116 This is why immunizing with the DTaP vaccine and Tdap vaccine is so important.
Today, health-care professionals use acellular pertussis vaccine as opposed to the older whole cell pertussis vaccine. The "a" in Tdap and DTaP actually stands for acellular. Acellular pertussis vaccines have been available in the United States since 1991. In 1998, they became the only recommended kind of whooping cough vaccines used in the United States because compared with whole cell pertussis vaccines they produced fewer reactions.30
Like most vaccines, the Tdap and DTaP vaccines work by exposing the immune system to an inactivated part of bacteria. The immune system can then learn how to fight the disease before it develops. This way, if the immune person is exposed to that germ down the road, the body will "remember" how to fight it and will help prevent the person from getting sick.83
Tdap and DTaP vaccines contain safe, miniscule amounts of some preservatives and additives. These are often added for the same reason many foods need preservatives: to ward off any contaminating bacteria and extend the life of the vaccine.67
While these ingredients worry some parents, it's important to remember that we are often exposed to these same substances in our everyday lives. For example, small amounts of aluminum are added to DTaP and Tdap vaccines to help make them more effective.67 But aluminum also occurs naturally in our environment and makes its way into our bodies through other sources as well.83
A series of recent well-designed scientific studies investigated a connection between different vaccines and autism, and no link was found. The controversy was around the mercury-containing preservative thimerosal, which isn't in DTaP or Tdap vaccines.109