Why Older Adults Should Get the Tdap Vaccine Now

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happy grandmother holding infant grandchild

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of reported cases of pertussis, commonly known as whooping cough, has increased over the last few decades. If you’re an adult, you may think, “But I can’t get whooping cough since I was vaccinated against it as a child.” However, current recommendations suggest that all adults, including older adults over the age of 65, receive a single vaccination of Tdap, an injection that provides protection from three diseases- tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis. Why is this the case?

The Tdap Vaccine: A Breakdown

The Tdap vaccine helps boost your immunity against three potentially serious diseases:

  • Tetanus: This bacteria can enter your body through cuts or breaks in the skin. Sometimes referred to as lockjaw, it causes painful muscle spasms, often in your jaw and neck. It may lead to difficulty breathing or swallowing and, in some cases, may be fatal.

  • Diphtheria: This rare disease affects the mucus membranes of your nose and throat, making it hard to breathe. Heart and nerve damage can occur if untreated.

  • Pertussis: Whooping cough is very contagious. It may cause violent coughing fits, often followed by a high-pitched “whooping” sound as you try to inhale. This can result in trouble breathing, vomiting, and broken ribs. More serious complications include pneumonia, brain damage, and even death.

The Importance of the Whooping Cough Vaccine for Adults

You probably know you’re supposed to get a tetanus booster shot every ten years to provide adequate protection from the disease. This is called the Td vaccine (tetanus and diphtheria). We now know the immunity provided by the whooping cough vaccine declines as you get older as well, so adults should get a one-time Tdap vaccine to properly defend against whooping cough later in life. If you haven’t had a Tdap vaccine yet, you don’t need to wait until you are due for your next 10-year tetanus booster. Talk to your doctor about getting the Tdap vaccine now.

Researchers believe whooping cough is often underreported, especially in adults, so it’s probably even more prevalent than we realize. This may be due to the fact that whooping cough in adults can present itself differently than it does in children. It can present just as a persistent cough, which might be dismissed as a cold or misdiagnosed as another illness, such as bronchitis.  However, complications such as pneumonia can develop over time, so being proactive with receiving the Tdap vaccine can help avoid significant illnesses and hospitalizations.

The Extra Benefits of the Whooping Cough Vaccine

Infants are especially vulnerable to whooping cough. Not only are they unable to begin their vaccination series to protect them from whooping cough until they’re two months old, but they are also more likely to suffer the most severe complications of the disease. Studies show the majority of babies who contract whooping cough were exposed to the disease by a relative or close adult.

Much like a cocoon protects a growing butterfly, when adults who are around newborns get the whooping cough vaccine, the Tdap vaccine safely “cocoons” the infant from being exposed to the disease. Ideally, the vaccine should be given at least two weeks prior to being in close contact with the baby. Pregnant mothers will be offered the Tdap vaccine by their health care providers, but also consider the whooping cough vaccine for grandparents, immediate family members, and other caregivers who anticipate being around the new baby.

Health officials are working hard to make the public more aware of the impact of whooping cough, both on the individuals themselves as well as young infants who don’t have immunity to the disease.  Yet many adults still don’t realize the importance of being vaccinated with Tdap, especially those older than 65, the group most recently approved for the vaccine. If you have questions about whether you, or those close to you, should receive a Tdap vaccine, don’t hesitate to talk to your doctor.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Aug 11
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    Tdap Vaccine. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/pertussis/downloads/matte-grandparents.pdf
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    Cough. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/whooping-cough/symptoms-causes/syc-20378973
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