Diphtheria is a contagious bacterium most often spread by coughing or sneezing. It can also be contracted by eating contaminated food (especially infected milk). A contagious person may not display symptoms, making this a disease that's 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 five 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 fewer 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 (such as that from stepping on a rusty nail). The disease then attacks the muscles (including those in the jaw), locking them in place. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the disease is deadly in two out of 10 cases; infection requires a lengthy treatment but can be prevented with an up-to-date vaccine.
Pertussis, aka whooping cough, is a bacterial illness that has been on the rise since the 1980s, with the CDC reporting epidemics every three to five years. Customized by a "whooping" or barking cough in children, pertussis does not produce the same symptoms in adults, making it harder to identify; therefore, outbreaks in children are often blamed on undiagnosed adult infections that have spread.
A three-in-one vaccine, the Tdap fights three bacteria in one shot: diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (whooping cough). Tdap is administered 10 years after a child's DTaP, typically around age 11 or 12, but sometimes as late as 13 or 14. For adults who missed the vaccine in their teen years, a Tdap is given in place of the Td shot (which does not contain a pertussis vaccine) anytime between 19 and 64.
Women who plan to become pregnant or have just given birth are also advised to get the Tdap, regardless of a recent Td shot.
The most common side effect is soreness at the injection site, often with some swelling.
The Tdap serves as a booster shot to fight the three viruses, but it will need followup 10 years later with the Td to continue the fight against diphtheria and tetanus.
Licensed in 2005, the Tdap is the first vaccine to offer adults immunity against all three diseases. Because of recent outbreaks of pertussis, the CDC has put more emphasis on adult immunizations with this shot.
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