Formulated to prevent diphtheria, tetanus (lockjaw) and pertussis (whooping cough), the DTaP fights three separate diseases with a single vaccine.
Diphtheria is a contagious bacterium most often spread by coughing or sneezing, but it can also be contracted by eating contaminated food (often milk). A contagious person may not display symptoms, making the disease hard to contain. Symptoms include a black or gray coating of the throat that makes breathing difficult; fever; cough; a bluish tint to the nose; and lesions on the skin. Fatal 5 to 10 percent of the time, the diphtheria bacterium can travel beyond the nose and throat to the heart and nervous system if left untreated. Thanks to immunizations, the National Institutes of Health report less than five cases per year in the United States.
Tetanus (aka lockjaw) is not communicated between people. Instead, patients acquire the naturally occurring bacteria via a deep open wound (for instance, by stepping on a rusty nail). The disease then attacks the muscles (including those in the jaw), locking them in place. Deadly in two out of 10 cases according to the CDC, infection requires lengthy treatment but can be prevented with an up-to-date vaccine.
Pertussis (aka whooping cough) has been on the rise since the 1980s, with the CDC reporting epidemics every three to five years. Characterized by a loud barking (or whooping) cough, this bacterial disease makes eating or drinking difficult and can induce vomiting. Fatalities are most common in young kids, claiming the lives of 10 in 2007.
DTaP is given only to children under age 7, meted out in five separate injections from the time a child is 2 months to 6 years old. The exact timing of the immunizations varies by physician, but the CDC guidelines call for the first dose to be administered at 2 months, then one each at 4 months, 6 months, 15 to 18 months and 4 to 6 years. An alternate version, the Tdap, is available for adolescents and adults.
Mild side effects are relatively common and include fever and redness, swelling, soreness and tenderness at the injection site. One in four kids report these mild symptoms, most often following the fourth or fifth DTaP dose. Crankiness, tiredness and loss of appetite also have been reported. Less than one child in a million has experienced a severe allergic reaction to the shot, and less than one in 14,000 has experienced seizures.
Kids suffering from minor illnesses can remain on their vaccination schedules, but if a child is suffering from anything more severe than a cold or the sniffles, the pediatrician will likely delay the shot.
If a child displays a severe reaction -- such as a seizure, high fever or lengthy bouts of crying (up to three hours) after the shot, the pediatrician may opt to continue the series with a DT vaccine instead of the DTaP. The DT will protect children from the threat of diphtheria and tetanus, but does not ward off pertussis.
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