Why You Probably Need the Tdap Shot

Learn what the vaccine protects against, how it works, and when to speak with a healthcare provider.

woman receiving vaccination from doctor

Updated on October 27, 2023.

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 have you received the Tdap vaccination? 

The Tdap shot protects against three diseases: tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (also known as whooping cough). Adults who have never gotten the Tdap vaccine can spread these 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.

There are other reasons for receiving the Tdap vaccine, too. It’s recommended if you fall into one of the following categories: 

  • You didn't get the shot as a child or don't remember if you did
  • You're a healthcare provider (HCP) and therefore come into contact with vulnerable people
  • You're pregnant (even if you had the shot before)
  • You're traveling to a place where whooping cough or diphtheria are common
  • You're a babysitter, caregiver, teacher, or otherwise spend time with infants as part of your job
  • You experience a severe wound or burn or become injured in a way that allows dirt or other contaminants into the wound, and your last Tdap shot was more than five years ago

For adults, Tdap boosters are recommended once every decade. If it’s been 10 years since your last dose, speak with an HCP.

How the Tdap shot works

While many routine vaccinations safeguard you and your family from a single disease, some protect you from multiple illnesses. The Tdap shot takes care of three conditions at once.

Pertussis. In most cases, babies get pertussis from close family members and people living in the same household, as well as from other caregivers. 

Getting vaccinated won’t just help keep the children in your life healthy; it can also save you from a painful and lengthy sickness. Adults who develop pertussis 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, associate professor in clinical medicine in the division of general medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College and New York Presbyterian Hospital. "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. So, it's best to get the shot if you've never been vaccinated, especially if you're around little ones

Diphtheria. Diphtheria is a highly contagious, serious bacterial infection that affects the throat and nose, causing swelling that makes it difficult to breathe. It can also damage your skin, kidneys, nerves, and heart. Though it’s typically spread through droplets released when a sick person coughs or sneezes, diphtheria can also be passed on if you touch an infected person’s open sores. 

During the 1920s, up to 15,000 people in the United States died of diphtheria each year. But thanks to the development of vaccines, the disease is now exceedingly rare. Between 1996 and 2018, there were just 14 recorded U.S. diphtheria cases and one death. Still, children under age five and adults over age 60 are at higher risk for becoming infected.  

Tetanus. Tetanus is a rare but serious infection. It is not spread from person to person, but instead caused by bacteria that can enter the body through breaks in the skin—for example, from wounds, insect bites, or sores.

Tetanus bacteria is found in most places in the environment, including in dirt, manure, and dust. In someone who is infected, these bacteria produce a toxin that causes muscles to contract painfully, which often tightens the jaw and neck muscles and gives it the nickname “lockjaw.” 

"Tetanus is life-threatening, so it's much better to prevent than it is to treat,” says Dr. Roach. The spores that cause tetanus are prevalent in the environment, so we need to 'rev up' our immune system with periodic boosters." 

The difference between Tdap and Td vaccines

If you received the Tdap vaccine already as a teenager or young adult, a different vaccine booster, called Td, may be recommended every 10 years going forward. The Td shot protects against tetanus and diphtheria, two of the three diseases covered by the Tdap vaccine. Your HCP will know which vaccination—Tdap or Td—is appropriate for you.

Note: You may have also heard of DTaP. It’s the diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis vaccine for children younger than 7 years old. 

Keeping track of your vaccinations

Can't remember if you're immunized? Roach suggests asking your HCP for the last time you got the Tdap shot. If there's no record, make an appointment to receive the vaccine as soon as possible if you're around children often.

Get the shot right away if you've had a deep injury that could lead to tetanus—like a puncture wound—and you haven’t received a Td or Tdap vaccine within the last five years.

And don’t forget: To help maintain good health and protect against communicable illnesses, be sure to keep track of your vaccination history. Ask an HCP to help get you started.

Article sources open article sources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tdap (Tetanus, Diphtheria, Pertussis) VIS. August 6, 2021. 
Havers FP, Moro PL, Hunter P, Hariri S, Bernstein H. Use of Tetanus Toxoid, Reduced Diphtheria Toxoid, and Acellular Pertussis Vaccines: Updated Recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices — United States, 2019. MMWR Morb Mortal Wkly Rep 2020;69:77–83. 
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pregnancy and Whooping Cough: Surround Babies with Protection. Page last reviewed December 1, 2022.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 5 Things to Know About Whooping Cough. Page last reviewed August 4, 2022. 
Decker MD, Edwards KM. Pertussis (Whooping Cough). J Infect Dis. 2021 Sep 30;224(12 Suppl 2):S310-S320.
Immunize.org. Ask the Experts: Diphtheria, Tetanus, Pertussis. Reviewed March 31, 2022.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Epidemiology and Prevention of Vaccine-Preventable Diseases: Diphtheria. Page last reviewed October 19, 2022. 
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Diphtheria. Page last reviewed September 9, 2022. 
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Diphtheria: Signs and Symptoms. Page last reviewed September 9, 2022. Page last reviewed September 9, 2022.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Epidemiology and Prevention of Vaccine-Preventable Diseases: Diphtheria. Last reviewed October 19, 2022.
Nemours Kids Health. Diphtheria. Reviewed May 2021.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tetanus. Page last reviewed August 29, 2022. 
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tetanus: Causes and How it Spreads. Page last reviewed August 29, 2022. 
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Tetanus: Symptoms and Complications. Page last reviewed August 29, 2022. 
Johns Hopkins Medicine. Whooping Cough (Pertussis) in Adults. Page accessed August 22, 2023.
Greenberg GM, Koshy PA, Hanson MJS. Adult Vaccination. American Family Physician. 2022;106(5):534-542.

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