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The big whoop: Who needs to get the pertussis vaccine? Learn the facts to protect your family

What's the big whoop?

Pertussis, also known as whooping cough, is a contagious disease that affects the lungs of the body. In adults, the disease doesn’t produce much of a response and in fact an adult might not even know he or she has contracted the disease. However, if an infant contracts pertussis, the result is much more serious and can even be fatal. Initially infants with pertussis may have a runny nose or congestion, sneezing, a mild fever and cough. Eventually the coughing can progress into fits that make it difficult for the baby to breathe. Also, the infant could get pneumonia if it contracts pertussis. At least 50 percent of infants who are less than one year of age that contract pertussis end up needing to go to the hospital for treatment.

Tdap, which stands for tetanus, diphtheria and acellular pertussis, is the adult vaccine that prevents the spread pertussis. The Tdap vaccine is a combination of three booster vaccines that provide immunity against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis.

As children, most of us received a series of vaccinations that protect against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis. We started the series at about two months old and ended between the ages of 4 and 6. Our parents probably remember better than we do because they had to deal with our tears.

After we finished this vaccination series, we then got a tetanus (Td) shot every 10 years. This shot not only protects against tetanus, but also diphtheria. Perhaps you would need a shot sooner than every ten years, like if you stepped on a rusty nail, but you only needed to receive the Td vaccine. Pertussis, on the other hand, used to be considered a done deal.

As it turns out, it wasn’t. Outbreaks of pertussis increased and it was determined that immunity from vaccinations we received as children didn’t last for a lifetime. The population that had the most amounts of outbreaks was infants less than one year old. In 2004 and 2007, studies showed that the source of the infant pertussis infections came from adults around the infant (parents, sibling, and caregivers, etc.) that didn’t know they had pertussis. Since immunity against pertussis provided in childhood vaccines doesn’t last a lifetime, babies were contracting pertussis and becoming extremely sick. Infants won’t start the childhood vaccine series until two months of age and it will take time to build immunity against pertussis, so those less than one year old are at an increased risk of contracting pertussis from adults.

This is why receiving the Tdap vaccine is important. By getting this one-time adult booster, immunity is extended and the spread of pertussis to infants can be prevented.

If you have already received the Tdap vaccine, you do not to need receive it again. If you haven’t received the vaccine or can’t remember and fall in any of the below categories, then you should receive the vaccination.

  • As part of a routine vaccination for those between 11 and 12 years old
  • Any adult who is 19 years or older who did not receive a dose as an adolescent, especially if you will be in contact with infants. At least two weeks should pass after receiving the vaccine before coming in contact with an infant.
  • Pregnant women who haven’t previously received a dose.
    • Either in the late second trimester (after 20 weeks of pregnancy) or in the third trimester.
    • During the immediate postpartum period.
  • Healthcare workers who have direct patient care, especially those who will be in contact with infants
There are a few side effects, and most commonly include pain and/or redness or swelling at the injection site, fever, headache, feeling tired, vomiting, diarrhea, stomach ache, chills, body aches, sore joints, and rash. If any of these symptoms persist or become worse, you should contact your doctor.

Lastly, now that you know why you should get it, when you should get it and what could happen if you get it, how do you get the Tdap vaccine? A good option is talking to your doctor about the vaccine. He or she can discuss any further questions and they might even have it available in their office. Also, some local pharmacies offer immunization services and have the Tdap vaccine available.

Here are a couple of additional helpful websites:

Sounds of Pertussis

CDC - Pertussis