Diphtheria, Tetanus, and Pertussis (DTaP)

What are diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis?

Diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus are serious diseases.

  • Diphtheria. Diphtheria is an acute bacterial disease that can infect the body in two areas:

    • The throat (respiratory diphtheria)

    • The skin (skin or cutaneous diphtheria)

    The diphtheria bacterium can enter the body through the nose and mouth. However, it can also enter through a break in the skin. It is transmitted from person-to-person by respiratory secretions or droplets in the air. After being exposed to the bacteria, it usually takes two to four days for symptoms to develop. It can lead to breathing problems, paralysis, heart failure, and even death.

  • Tetanus. Tetanus (lockjaw) is an acute, sometimes fatal, disease of the central nervous system, caused by the toxin of the tetanus bacterium, which usually enters the body through an open wound. Tetanus causes painful tightening of the muscles, usually all over the body. It can lead to "locking" of the jaw so the person cannot open his or her mouth or swallow.

    Tetanus is not a contagious illness. It occurs in individuals who have had a skin or deep tissue wound or puncture. It is also seen in the umbilical stump of infants in underdeveloped countries. This occurs in places where immunization to tetanus is not widespread and women may not know proper care of the umbilical stump after the baby is born. After being exposed to tetanus, it may take between two days to two months to develop any symptoms. In infants, symptoms may take between five days to two weeks to develop.

  • Pertussis. Pertussis (whooping cough) mainly affects infants and young children. Caused by a bacterium called Bordetella pertussis, it is characterized by paroxysms (intense fits or spells) of coughing that end with the characteristic whoop as air is inhaled. Whooping cough causes coughing spells so bad that it is hard for infants and children to eat, drink, or breathe. These spells can last for weeks.

    It is spread through children from exposure to infected persons through droplets in the air (coughing and sneezing), and is highly contagious. Once the bacteria is in the child's airways, swelling of the airways and mucus production begins. It can lead to pneumonia, seizures, brain damage, and death.

Immunization against diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis

Diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis vaccines prevent these diseases. Most children who receive all of their shots will be protected during childhood. A combination vaccine is given to babies and children and provides protection against all three diseases. There are several types of the vaccine, including the following:

  • DTaP vaccine:

    • Protects against diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis

    • Newer form of the vaccine, in which the pertussis component is "acellular," thus less likely to cause reactions than former types

  • DT or Td boosters:

    • Protects against diphtheria and tetanus

    • For people seven years of age and older

    • Recommended every 10 years for adults

  • Tdap vaccine: 

    • Protects against tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis 

    • Recommended as a booster shot for adolescents ages 11 to 18 years who have completed the recommended DTP/DTaP series and as a one-time booster for adults in place of their next every-ten-year booster shot. 

When are diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis combination vaccines given?

DTaP vaccines are given to babies and children at the following ages:

  • Two months

  • Four months

  • Six months

  • 15 to 18 months

  • Four to six years

  • Preferably at ages 7 to 10, but if not given then, give at 11 to 12 years (given as the Tdap form of vaccine) 

  • 13 to 18 years (Tdap catch-up as needed if this form of the vaccine has not already been given) 

Some children should not get the DTaP vaccines, or should get them at a later date. Other children may get the vaccines only after consultation with a doctor. These include children who:

  • Previously had a moderate or serious reaction after getting vaccinated

  • Previously had a seizure or collapsed after a dose of DTaP

  • Cried nonstop for three hours or more after a dose of DTaP

  • Had a fever over 105 degrees Fahrenheit (41 degrees Celsius) after a dose of DTaP

  • Had brain or nervous system problems after a previous vaccine 

  • Currently have a moderate or severe illness

Your child's doctor will advise you about vaccines in these situations.

What are the risks from DTaP vaccines?

As with any medication, vaccines carry a small risk of serious harm, such as a severe allergic reaction or even death. If there are reactions, they usually start within three days and do not last long. Most people have no serious reactions from these vaccines. Reactions are much less likely after DTaP than older forms of the vaccine. Common reactions to these vaccines may include the following:

  • Soreness at the injection site 

  • Fussiness

  • Fatigue

  • Fever

  • Decreased appetite

  • Vomiting

Severe reactions such as very high fever, seizures, or allergic reactions to these vaccines are rare.

How do I care for my child after immunization with DTaP vaccine?

  • Give your child aspirin-free pain reliever for 24 hours after the shot, or as directed by your child's doctor. This is important if your child has had a seizure or has a parent, brother, or sister who has had a seizure.

  • Watch for signs of reaction, such as high fever, behavior change, seizure, or difficulty breathing. Report these or any other unusual signs immediately to your child's doctor.