Before antibiotics were available, diphtheria was a common illness in young children. Today, the disease is not only treatable but also preventable with a vaccine.
The diphtheria vaccine is usually combined with vaccines for tetanus and whooping cough (pertussis). The three-in-one vaccine is known as the diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis vaccine. The latest version of this vaccine is known as the DTaP vaccine for children and the Tdap vaccine for adolescents and adults.
The diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis vaccine is one of the childhood immunizations that doctors in the United States recommend during infancy. Vaccination consists of a series of five shots, typically administered in the arm or thigh, given to children at these ages:
- 2 months
- 4 months
- 6 months
- 15 to 18 months
- 4 to 6 years
The diphtheria vaccine is effective at preventing diphtheria. But there may be some side effects. Some children may experience a mild fever, fussiness, drowsiness or tenderness at the injection site after a DTaP shot. Ask your doctor what you can do for your child to minimize or relieve these effects.
Rarely, the DTaP vaccine causes serious but treatable complications in a child, such as an allergic reaction (hives or a rash develops within minutes of the injection).
Some children — such as those with epilepsy or another nervous system condition — may not be candidates for the DTaP vaccine
After the initial series of immunizations in childhood, you need booster shots of the diphtheria vaccine to help you maintain your immunity. That's because immunity to diphtheria fades with time.
Children who received all of the recommended immunizations before age 7 should receive their first booster shot at around age 11 or 12. The next booster shot is recommended 10 years later, then repeated at 10-year intervals. Booster shots are particularly important if you travel to an area where diphtheria is common.
The diphtheria booster is combined with the tetanus booster — the tetanus-diphtheria (Td) vaccine. This combination vaccine is given by injection, usually into the arm or thigh.
Tdap is a combined tetanus, diphtheria and acellular pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine. It's a one-time alternative vaccine for adolescents ages 11 through 18 and adults who haven't previously had a Tdap booster. It's also recommended once during pregnancy, regardless of previous vaccinations.
Talk to your doctor about vaccines and booster shots if you're unsure of your vaccination status. Tdap also may be recommended as part of the Td series for children ages 7 through 10 who aren't up to date with the vaccine schedule.