What is the diphtheria vaccine?

The diphtheria vaccine is an immunization that prevents diphtheria. Diphtheria is a bacterial infection. It causes severe inflammation in your nose and throat. Because it is usually paired with a tetanus vaccine, it’s also part of a so-called tetanus shot.

Babies and adults need diphtheria vaccines at different times throughout their lives. Providers give you or your child the diphtheria vaccine as a shot. They use a small needle, usually injected into the arm or thigh.

Why are diphtheria vaccines necessary?

Although diphtheria is rare in developed countries, people can still get the disease. Diphtheria can lead to severe complications, such as pneumonia (lung infection), lung failure and paralysis. About 1 in 10 people who get diphtheria die from it.

Getting a diphtheria vaccine is the best way to protect yourself from infection. When most people in a community get the diphtheria vaccine, the entire community is less likely to get diphtheria.

What are the types of diphtheria vaccines?

Several vaccines protect people from diphtheria. All of these vaccines protect you from multiple diseases.

Babies and children under age 7 can get:

  • DTaP vaccines (Daptacel®, Quadracel® and Vaxelis®) protect against diphtheria, tetanus (bacterial infection of the central nervous system) and pertussis (whooping cough). Some DTaP vaccines also protect against other illnesses.
  • DT vaccines protect against only diphtheria and tetanus.

Older children, teenagers and adults can get:

  • Tdap vaccines (Adacel® and Boostrix®) protect from tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis.
  • Td vaccines (Tenivac®) protect from only tetanus and diphtheria, as adults are less likely than babies to get whooping cough. Adults need this “booster” every 10 years.

Who should get a diphtheria vaccine?

People of all ages should get the diphtheria vaccine. Young children should get the DTaP vaccine a total of five times, at ages:

  • 2 months.
  • 4 months.
  • 6 months.
  • Between 15 to 18 months.
  • Between 4 and 6 years.

Older children need the Tdap vaccine at age 11 or 12. Adults should get another Td or Tdap shot every 10 years.

Pregnant women should also get the Tdap vaccine during the third trimester of any pregnancy. Getting the Tdap vaccine while pregnant is particularly important. The vaccine can protect your baby from getting whooping cough in the first few months of life.

What happens if I miss a dose of the diphtheria vaccine?

If your child misses getting the next dose of the DTaP or DT vaccine at the recommended age, speak with your healthcare provider. Your child may be able to get a diphtheria vaccine at their next healthcare appointment. Children who miss the Tdap booster given between ages 11 and 12 should get the vaccine at their next appointment with a healthcare provider.

If adults have never had the Tdap vaccine or miss a dose, they should get the vaccine at their next appointment. If you have an accident that breaks the skin, providers will ask when you last had a tetanus shot. If you aren’t sure when you last had the vaccine, your provider may give you the vaccine to keep you safe from tetanus infection.

Who shouldn’t get a diphtheria vaccine?

Some people should avoid or wait to get certain vaccines. For example, if you or your child has an illness, such as the flu, you will likely need to wait to get a vaccine.

If you are not a good candidate for a diphtheria vaccine, your healthcare provider will give you instructions and information about vaccination options. In general, people should talk to their healthcare provider if they have:

  • Guillain-Barré syndrome, a rare condition where your immune system attacks your nerves.
  • History of severe allergic reactions to diphtheria vaccines.
  • History of severe pain, swelling or fever above 105 degrees Fahrenheit after a diphtheria vaccine.
  • Seizures or other nervous system disorders.
  • Severe allergies to any of the ingredients in the vaccine.

What are the possible side effects of diphtheria vaccination?

Most people don’t have any severe problems after getting a diphtheria vaccination. Some people may develop mild side effects. These side effects usually go away on their own after a few hours or days.

You or your child may develop:

How effective is the diphtheria vaccine?

The components of DTaP, DT, Td and Tdap vaccines that protect against diphtheria work extremely well. Research has found that these vaccines are 95% effective against diphtheria for up to 10 years.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Diphtheria vaccines protect children and adults from a disease called diphtheria. Diphtheria is a bacterial infection that causes severe inflammation. It can lead to pneumonia, lung failure, paralysis and even death. Although diphtheria once was common in the United States, the diphtheria vaccine has made the condition rare in developed countries. Young children receive diphtheria vaccines as a series of five shots. After age 12, most people receive a diphtheria vaccine once every 10 years.

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 06/02/2021.

References

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Diphtheria, Tetanus, and Whooping Cough Vaccination: What Everyone Should Know. https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vpd/dtap-tdap-td/public/index.html (https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vpd/dtap-tdap-td/public/index.html) Accessed 5/3/2021.
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tetanus Vaccination. https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vpd/tetanus/index.html (https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/vpd/tetanus/index.html) Accessed 5/5/2021.
  • U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Immunization. Diphtheria. https://www.hhs.gov/immunization/diseases/diphtheria/index.html (https://www.hhs.gov/immunization/diseases/diphtheria/index.html) Accessed 5/3/2021.
  • World Health Organization (WHO). Diphtheria vaccine: Review of evidence on vaccine effectiveness and immunogenicity to assess the duration of protection ≥10 years after the last booster dose [PDF]. https://www.who.int/immunization/sage/meetings/2017/april/2_Review_Diphtheria_results_April2017_final_clean.pdf (https://www.who.int/immunization/sage/meetings/2017/april/2_Review_Diphtheria_results_April2017_final_clean.pdf) Accessed 5/3/2021.

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