Are You Protected? Essential Vaccinations Every Adult Should Consider – Part 2

three generations of family together

New Solutions For An Age Old Problem: Diphtheria, Tetanus and Pertussis

We continue our exploration of adult vaccinations with a look at much improved and updated versions of an old-time vaccine for diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis, as well as compelling new reasons to get it.

A painful history

When many of us were growing up and getting our childhood immunizations, one was almost guaranteed to be painful for everyone: the DTP (diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis) shot. Back then it was considered a “dirty” vaccine because of the pertussis component. Pertussis infections, also known as whooping cough, caused thick, tenacious secretions in the lungs which made breathing difficult and triggered horrible coughing fits. It was sometimes referred to as the “100 day cough” because it lasted for many weeks. The old, whole-cell DTP vaccine contained ground-up, inactivated pertussis organisms, and when injected into the arm, hyperstimulated the immune system and caused localized pain and swelling for many. The side effects were so unpleasant that many adults did not get their booster shots. As a result, the pertussis component was removed from the vaccine many years ago, and the DTP shot became the DT shot, for diphtheria and tetanus only.

The vaccine evolves

Unfortunately the pertussis organism did not disappear and eventually a resurgence in whooping cough occurred. The same thick, tenacious sputum causing breathing difficulties and a severe cough slowly re-established itself in the United States. Particularly worrisome and potentially life-threatening for infants and young children, pertussis again became a significant public health problem. Fortunately, medical scientists who discover, study, and create vaccines identified specific sub-units of the pertussis organism that could be used in a “clean” vaccine to develop immunity without the previous side effects. The evolution is complete: the DTP vaccine given to Baby Boomers became the DT vaccine given to their children, and is now the DTaP vaccine given to the youngest generation. DTaP – the diphtheria, tetanus and acellular pertussis vaccine – is clean, safe, effective, and most importantly, no longer painful.   

Why older patients need the vaccine, especially grandparents

three generations of family together
For grandparents, the vaccine is essential to prevent you from infecting very young grandchildren with pertussis. Early symptoms of pertussis can appear similar to a common cold, and you might unintentionally pass this highly contagious disease on to infants who are most vulnerable to its complications. For that reason, pediatricians are advising parents to keep grandparents away from the grandchildren until they’ve received their Tdap vaccine update (a version of the tetanus, diphtheria and acellular pertussis vaccine approved for adults). While this was a very prominent concern before COVID-19, it was understandably lost while dealing with the urgency of the pandemic. As we continue to re-establish normalcy in the post-COVID era, I predict that the need for older adults to get the Tdap vaccine will once again become a major emphasis. My recommendation: be thoughtfully proactive and check in with us to determine the appropriate vaccine schedule to protect you and your loved ones. 

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