Skip to main content

Tetanus, Diphtheria, and Pertussis (Tdap) Vaccine

About Tetanus, Diphtheria, and Pertussis (Whooping Cough)

These three diseases are all caused by bacteria. Diphtheria and pertussis are spread from person to person. Tetanus bacteria live in soil and dirt; the bacteria enter the body through cuts, scratches, or wounds. Tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis vaccine, a combination vaccine, provides protection against all three. There is a formulation for infants and children (DTaP) and a formulation for adolescents and adults (Tdap).

Tetanus, sometimes called “lockjaw,” is an infection of the nervous system. It causes severe muscle spasms that can lead, among other things, to “locking” of the jaw so the patient cannot open his/her mouth or swallow.

Diphtheria is rare in the US, however, it still exists in other countries and can pose a serious threat to anyone not fully immunized who travels abroad or who has contact with infected individuals who come to the US. Diphtheria causes a thick covering in the back of the throat. It can lead to breathing problems, paralysis, heart failure, and even death.

Pertussis, also known as whooping cough, is a serious infection that causes coughing spells so severe that it can be hard to breathe. The disease can even lead to cracked ribs, pneumonia, or hospitalization. Protection from the pertussis vaccine that is given in early childhood wears off, so adolescents and adults can get whooping cough. The illness is usually milder in them (they may never know they had it), but they are common transmitters of the infection to infants, who are at the highest risk of death. In fact, a whooping cough outbreak that occurred in California in 2010 was responsible for the largest number of cases in California in nearly 50 years and the death of 10 infants.



Reviewed April 2021