Hawaii Health Alert: Why You Probably Need the Tdap Shot

Medically reviewed in July 2022

You put in the extra effort to keep your kids and grandkids healthy—you make sure they get nutritious meals, safe toys and regular checkups. But the greatest threat to your little loved one's health could be you.

Adults who have never gotten the Tdap vaccine can spread serious illnesses to infants and young children, who are especially at risk of becoming infected because of their weaker immune systems. If a child catches one of these sicknesses, it could potentially become deadly.

The Tdap vaccine protects against three diseases: pertussis, diphtheria and tetanus. In the United States, most people receive the Tdap vaccine at 11 or 12 years old. In Hawaii, however, the Tdap immunization rates for adolescents aged 13 to 17 are far lower than the national average. Only 84.8 percent of Hawaii adolescents have received the Tdap vaccine, compared to 88.7 percent nationally. That is below the threshold for herd immunity for both diphtheria and pertussis, which require 85 and 92 percent vaccination rates respectively to achieve herd immunity. Herd immunity is the idea that if a certain number of people in a community are vaccinated against a disease, it will help to protect people who are unvaccinated (like those who are allergic to a vaccine or have a compromised immune system) against it.

Who should get the Tdap vaccine?

  • If you didn't get the shot as a child or don't remember if you did
  • If you're a healthcare provider
  • If you're pregnant (even if you had the shot before)
  • If you're traveling to a place where whooping cough or diphtheria are common
  • If you're around infants as part of your job, such as babysitters, caregivers and teachers

If you fall into one of these buckets, you'll be happy to hear that one tiny shot covers your bases. Let's break down how this vaccine benefits most people.

Pertussis: Studies show that children get pertussis, also called whooping cough, from family members about 80 percent of the time. While getting vaccinated will help keep the children in your life healthy, it can also save you from painful sickness. Adults who get whooping cough often have coughing fits that last all night, with some describing it as the worst cough they've ever had. "The cough can last for months," says Keith Roach, MD, chief medical officer of Sharecare. "It doesn't usually keep people home from work, but it makes them and their coworkers miserable." Even if you've had whooping cough in the past, you can get it again. It’s best to get the shot if you've never been vaccinated, especially if you're around little ones. It takes just minutes at your doctor's office.

Diphtheria: Diphtheria is a very contagious bacterial infection that affects the throat and nose, making it difficult to breathe. It's rare in the US, but children under 5 and adults over 60 have a higher risk.

Tetanus: While it's not contagious, you definitely don't want to risk getting tetanus, especially if you're prone to cuts or scrapes. Also called lockjaw, tetanus is a rare but serious disease. "It's sometimes called the 'unforgivable' disease, since nobody should get it anymore," Dr. Roach says. "Tetanus is life-threatening, so it's much better to prevent than it is to treat. The spores that cause tetanus are prevalent in the environment, so we need to 'rev up' our immune system with periodic boosters."

Can't remember if you're immunized? Roach suggests asking your doctor when the last time you got the shot was. If there's no record and you can't remember, make a quick appointment—if you're around children often—or get it at your next checkup if there's no immediate risk. Get the shot right away if you've had a deep injury that could lead to tetanus, like a puncture wound, Roach adds.

Ask your doctor if this vaccine makes sense for you. After you get it, be sure to track all your shots for healthier living.

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