Vaccinations: DTaP

What are diphtheria, tetanus & pertussis? 

The DTaP vaccine protects against three serious bacterial diseases: diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis. 

Diphtheria causes a thick gray coating to form on the back of the throat, making it difficult to breathe. Other symptoms include sore throat, painful swallowing, fever, swollen glands, and weakness. The disease is spread through contact with an infected person. If left untreated, diphtheria can lead to paralysis, heart failure, kidney failure, and death. 

Tetanus results in painful tightening of the muscles, usually in the neck, chest, and stomach areas. Also known as "lockjaw," the disease often causes the neck and jaw muscles to tighten, making it difficult to open the mouth or swallow. Tetanus doesn’t spread through human contact. Spores of the tetanus bacteria are found in soil, dust and manure. These spores enter the body through a break in the skin (cuts or puncture wounds). Children, for example, can become infected while playing in the yard. A full recovery can take months, but if left untreated, can be deadly.

Pertussis, commonly known as whooping cough, causes severe coughing spells that leave an infected person gasping for air. The disease can lead to pneumonia, seizures, brain damage, and death. Pertussis is spread through contact with an infected person. Once infected, symptoms usually appear within 3 to 12 days.

Why should I vaccinate my child? 

Diphtheria was one of the most common causes of illness and death among children until a vaccine became widely used in the 1940s. Of the five fatal cases of diphtheria between 1980 and 2005, four of the deaths were among unvaccinated children. 

Tetanus cases in the U.S. also decreased significantly after the introduction of the vaccine in the 1940s, and the number of tetanus cases has continued to decrease through the years.

Like diphtheria, pertussis was also a major cause of childhood death before the introduction of a vaccine in the 1940s. While the number of cases decreased significantly in the 80s, new cases of pertussis have gone up — especially among adolescents, teens, and infants younger than 6 months old (who are too young to have received all of their vaccinations). While people who get vaccinated still have a risk of contracting and spreading pertussis, the condition is much less severe in a vaccinated person versus one who does not get the vaccine. 

How many doses will my child receive? 

The DTaP vaccine is given as a series of five shots (injections), typically administered in the arm or thigh.

When is the vaccine given? 

According to the CDC, children should receive one dose of the DTaP vaccine at the following ages: 

  • 2 months 
  • 4 months 
  • 6 months 
  • 15–18 months 
  • 4–6 years

What are the possible side effects? 

Mild side effects are more often to occur after the fourth or fifth doses of the DTap series. About 1 in 4 children experience fever and redness or swelling where the shot was given. Other mild problems that generally occur one to three days after the shot include fussiness, tiredness or poor appetite, and vomiting. 

Moderate problems — which occur in less than 1 percent of children — include seizure, non-stop crying for three hours or more, high fever over 105° F. 

When should I call a doctor? 

As with any vaccine, parents should contact a health care provider if their child experiences an allergic reaction (which occurs in less than one out of a million doses and most likely happens within a few minutes to a few hours of receiving the shot). Signs of an allergic reaction include difficulty breathing, hoarseness or wheezing, swelling of the throat, weakness, paleness, fast heartbeat, hives, and dizziness. Parents should immediately call 911 or alert their child’s health care provider if their child experiences an allergic reaction.

Last updated February 10, 2020

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