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What is a Tdap Vaccine and When Do You Need One?

If your extended family is getting a new bundle of joy, you may want to schedule the shot

spinner image hand in blue medical gloves holding Tap, tetanus, diptheria, and pertussis, vaccine vial
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When you’re at the doctor for your annual wellness visit, they’ll take your vital signs, talk to you about your health habits and maybe order blood tests, too. But there’s another discussion you should have at that routine visit: Am I caught up on my vaccinations?

“The older you get, the more important it is to make sure you’re up to date with your vaccines, especially if you have underlying heart or lung disease, which comes with a greater risk for severe infection. We have these wonderful tools to keep us healthy, and we need to be using them,” says Linda Yancey, M.D., an infectious disease specialist at Memorial Hermann Health System in Katy, Texas.

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And one of those important vaccines is Tdap.

Here’s what you need to know about the Tdap vaccine, including how it protects you and loved ones around you (like the grandkids) and when you need to roll up your sleeve to get it.

What is the Tdap vaccine?

Tdap stands for tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis. These are all illnesses that can be pretty brutal, but ones that many people today will no longer see in their lifetimes because of vaccines. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, these are the risks each illness brings:

Tetanus: An infection of the bacteria clostridium tetani, tetanus can enter your body through a contaminated cut, wound or burn. Once the bacteria course through your system, you can develop symptoms such as muscle stiffness, including lockjaw, trouble swallowing, seizures and cardiovascular complications like changes in your heart rate and blood pressure. 

Though tetanus is still possible to acquire today, cases have plummeted by more than 99 percent in the U.S. since 1947 thanks to vaccination, according to the CDC.

Diphtheria: This is also a bacterial infection — this time from corynebacterium diphtheriae — but it’s one that can be spread to close contacts, including people who live at home with you or a caretaker. The bacteria take hold of the respiratory system, impairing your ability to breathe and swallow, and they can spread into your bloodstream to cause heart, nerve and kidney damage, possibly leading to death.

Diphtheria once was a big health threat, infecting hundreds of thousands of people and causing more than 10,000 U.S. deaths each year, particularly among children, in the 1920s. With the advent of the vaccine in the 1940s, diphtheria has all but disappeared in the U.S. In fact, there have been just 14 cases and one death from 1996 to 2018, the CDC says.


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Pertussis: Also called whooping cough, pertussis spreads from person to person via the bordetella pertussis bacteria. The bacteria harm the cilia in your airways; these are hair-like structures that move like an escalator to keep debris and germs out of your lungs. Damaged cilia allow junk into your airways, making breathing difficult and causing a telltale cough that sounds like a whoop. If you’ve ever seen someone with whooping cough, you know how forceful and vicious their coughing fits can be. “I’ve had patients cough so hard, they vomit or have broken ribs,” Yancey says. The cough can linger up to three months, she adds.

Pertussis has been on the rise over the last several decades, according to the CDC, and it hits children — especially babies — hard. But adults are not immune to the illness. “It’s important not to believe that this is just a disease of children,” says June McKoy, M.D., a professor of geriatric medicine and preventive medicine at Northwestern Medicine in Chicago. “Pertussis in adults is not as common, but you might start out with a runny nose or sneezing and then develop a cough that becomes really severe.”

But do I really need a Tdap shot?

Experts say yes. You’ll always want to consult with your doctor about the vaccinations you need, but the CDC recommends getting Tdap if:

  • You’ve never had Tdap.
  • It’s been 10 years since your last Tdap shot. (And you should get the jab every decade for your lifetime, McKoy says.)
  • It’s been five years since your last Tdap and now you have a dirty wound or burn. In that case, you need a tetanus shot, and your provider may recommend Tdap for more full coverage.
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In addition, you need to make sure you’re up to date on Tdap by asking your provider when your last vaccine was if you’re going to have a new bundle of joy in the family.

“It’s very common for pertussis to circulate in the population; and for babies who get pertussis, it can be deadly,” Yancey says. Half of children under 6 months of age who get whooping cough have to be hospitalized, according to the CDC. “Those close to the family may be asked to get a booster to protect the baby,” Yancey adds. Even if there isn’t a new baby, Tdap is also important if you have grandchildren. “We try to impress on grandparents to make sure that they’re vaccinated with Tdap to ensure protection against pertussis,” McKoy says.

Past research in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases has shown that the Tdap vaccine is safe in adults aged 65 and older. The most common side effects people may experience include discomfort or redness at the site of the shot. You might also get a mild fever, a headache, or feel fatigued after Tdap vaccination.

If you’ve had allergies to any vaccine in the past, tell your doctor so they can ensure the components of the vaccine are safe for you and, if so, administer the vaccine in their office so they can keep an eye on you for any reaction, McKoy advises. Otherwise, you can safely get the Tdap vaccine at your local pharmacy. Should you feel sick on the day you plan to get the shot, postpone until you’re feeling better, McKoy advises.

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