Why get vaccinated?

Tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis are serious diseases.

Tetanus (also called "lockjaw") is caused by bacteria usually found in soil, dust, and manure. Unlike other diseases for which people receive vaccines, tetanus is not contagious (it is not spread from person to person). A person gets tetanus from the environment. The tetanus bacteria enter the body through an opening in the skin – the size of the opening can range from a tiny pinprick or scratch to a cut to a deep puncture wound, such as that caused by a nail or knife. Tetanus can be an aftermath of severe burns, ear infections, tooth infections, and animal bites. Contrary to popular belief, rusty nails do not cause tetanus. It's the bacterium that cause the disease, and the bacteria can be present on a rusty nail, a shiny nail, or many other objects that come into contact with an opening in the skin.

Symptoms and course: Headache, crankiness and spasms of the jaw muscles are the first symptoms to develop; appearing from 3 days to 3 weeks after tetanus enters the body. As the tetanus toxin (poison) spreads, it can cause painful muscle contractions in the neck, arms, legs, and stomach. Severe spasms in the jaw can cause it to lock so the patient cannot open his/her mouth or swallow. Several weeks of hospitalization may be needed to recover from tetanus. In the United States, about 50 cases a year occur, and 3 in 10 people who get tetanus die from it.

Diphtheria is caused by bacteria that lives in the mouth, throat and nose of an infected person and are spread to others through coughing or sneezing. A person who has diphtheria can spread it to others during the first 2 to 4 weeks they are infected.

Symptoms and course: Sore throat, slight fever and chills are early symptoms, appearing 2 to 4 days after exposure to diphtheria. Sometimes a thick coating occurs in the nose and back of the throat, making it hard to swallow or even breathe. Other problems include heart failure and paralysis. About 1 person in 10 who get diphtheria dies from it.

Pertussis (whooping cough) is caused by highly contagious bacteria that live in the mouth, throat and nose of an infected person. It is spread to others during coughing or sneezing or through direct contact with discharges form the nose or throat of the infected person.

Symptoms and course: Symptoms include severe coughing spells – so bad infants can hardly eat, drink, or breathe. Spells can last for weeks. The condition leads to pneumonia, seizures, brain damage, and death.

Vaccination is the best way to protect against tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis. If it weren't for vaccines and immunization programs that began in the 1920s and continue to this day, many more people would get these diseases and would die from these diseases.

Who should get the vaccine?

The tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis vaccines are given to children together as a combination vaccine called Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, and acellular pertussis). Children should get a total of 5 doses of Tdap vaccines before they reach 6 years of age. The tetanus and diphtheria vaccine (Td), given together as a single vaccine, is intended for children ages 7 and older and for adults. It does not contain the pertussis vaccine and has less diphtheria toxoid than the DTaP vaccine.

Is there anyone who should not receive the Td vaccine?

Tell your doctor or nurse if the person getting the vaccine:

  • Has ever had a serious allergic reaction or other problem with Td or any other tetanus and diphtheria vaccine (Tdap or Td),
  • Currently has a moderate or severe illness,
  • Is pregnant

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 08/18/2015.


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