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Time for Your Tdap Booster

With whooping cough (aka, pertussis) on the rise, make sure you’re up to date

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Talk about an unwelcome comeback. In the 1970s pertussis (more commonly known as whooping cough) seemed to be disappearing in the U.S. But since then, the highly contagious infection, caused by Bordetella pertussis bacteria, has been experiencing something of a resurgence. A 2016 study, published in the journal Pediatrics, explained why. In the mid-1990s the vaccine’s potency was intentionally weakened to reduce some unwanted side effects, including fever and pain at the injection site. Unfortunately, this caused the antibodies in the pertussis vaccine to wane pretty rapidly.

In the first year after vaccination, Tdap (for tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis) prevents the illness in about 7 of 10 people who received the shot. Of course, another reason to get inoculated is to avoid passing on the virus to other people. “Guess who the reservoir for the disease is?” says Gregory Poland, M.D., an infectious disease expert and director of the Mayo Clinic Vaccination Research Group. “Adults who spread it to kids — and not the other way around.” That’s why it is crucial for people who have close contact with infants younger than 12 months — including parents, grandparents and childcare providers — to get a booster.

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If you can’t remember ever getting this shot, you probably need it. A bonus: This can also count for one of the Td boosters you’re supposed to get every 10 years to prevent your diphtheria and tetanus (you know, the shot you need after stepping on a rusty nail during a home renovation or after getting a nasty nip from that rambunctious new puppy) immunizations from fading.

Need another reason to roll up your sleeve? A recent study, published in The Journals of Gerontology, Series A: Biological Sciences and Medical Sciences, found that the Tdap vaccination is associated with a 42 percent lower dementia risk in older adults. However, the study authors, noted: “Several vaccine types are linked to decreased dementia risk, suggesting that these associations are due to nonspecific effects on inflammation rather than vaccine-induced pathogen-specific protective effects.”

Researchers are also looking into whether getting a diphtheria or tetanus vaccine booster within the past 10 years may provide a lower risk of severe complications from COVID-19. Scientists suspect that the vaccines may be priming the innate immune response to fight off the virus.

What to know about the Tdap vaccine

Who needs it: The Tdap vaccine is a triple whammy, protecting against tetanus and diphtheria, as well as offering an additional defense against whooping cough. Can’t remember if you ever got the shot? Get it anyway. The three-in-one Tdap vaccine can count as one of the Td boosters you need to get every 10 years. Inform your doctor if you have epilepsy or other nervous system problems, had severe swelling or pain after a previous dose of either vaccine or have (or had) Guillain-Barré syndrome.

How often: You get Tdap only once, and after that you still need a booster (either Tdap or Td) every 10 years. Otherwise, your protection against tetanus and diphtheria will fade.

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Why you need it: Whooping cough isn’t just a childhood disease. Due to a rise in cases in the U.S. — particularly among adults and adolescents — you need to be vaccinated, even if you’re over 65.

Editor’s note: This article was published on Oct. 26, 2020. It was updated in September 2021 with new information. 

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