What Is the DTaP Vaccine?

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What Is the DTaP Vaccine?

The DTaP vaccine is a vaccine given to children age 6 and under. It protects against diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis—bacterial infections that can cause severe disease. Older children and adults don’t receive DTaP vaccines; instead, they receive a different version of the vaccine called Tdap.

Similar to other immunizations, the DTaP vaccine works by exposing your child to a very small dose of the bacteria, thereby prompting your child to develop immunity and protecting them from future infections. However, if your child already has one of these infections, the vaccine will not be able to treat it.

Like all immunizations, the DTaP vaccine can’t provide 100% protection from these diseases, but DTaP is considered a reliable vaccine, and protects the majority of children who receive it.

If we stopped vaccinating against diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis, we would see a rise in these infections among children. Thanks to DTaP and Tdap, diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis are vaccine-preventable infections.

What Diseases Does the DTaP Vaccine Protect You From?

DTaP vaccines protect against three serious diseases: diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis. Let’s take a look at what these diseases are, and how they can affect children.

Diphtheria

Diphtheria is a bacterial infection that can be spread from person to person. It produces a thick coating in the nasal passages, throat, and airways. In many cases, it can cause complications such as breathing issues, heart issues, and paralysis. The fatality rate from diphtheria is as high as 20% in kids under 5 years old. Children continue to die of diphtheria in areas where they are not vaccinated.

Tetanus

Tetanus isn’t passed from person to person, but is contracted when the tetanus bacteria enters the bloodstream through a cut in the skin. Signs of a tetanus infection include a tightening of the muscles throughout the body. Tetanus also causes “lockjaw,” where the person’s jaw becomes locked and they cannot open their mouth to eat, speak, or swallow. Tetanus is deadly in about 2 out of 10 cases.

Pertussis

Pertussis, otherwise known as whooping cough, causes more than just a bad cough. Contagious via person to person contact, pertussis causes severe coughing fits that can make it difficult to breathe, eat, or drink. These spells can last for several weeks. Pertussis can cause pneumonia, seizures, brain damage, and death. Pertussis in babies under a year old is particularly dangerous, as the coughing and respiratory distress can be severe. Some babies need a ventilator to breathe for them until they recover.

When Does Your Child Get the DTaP Vaccine?

The DTaP vaccine is part of your child’s regular immunization schedule. The DTaP vaccine is given five times between the ages of 2 months and 4 to 6 years. It may be given with other vaccinations. Children over the age of 6 do not receive a DTaP vaccine; instead, they receive boosters via the Tdap vaccine.

Here is the current DTaP vaccine schedule, courtesy of the Academy of American Pediatrics (AAP):

  • 2 months
  • 4 months
  • 6 months
  • 15-18 months
  • 4-6 years

After 6 years of age, your child ages out of the DTaP vaccine and will receive the Tdap vaccine. The CDC recommendation is one Tdap vaccine between the ages of 11 and 12 as a booster to the DTaP vaccine.

It’s also recommended that pregnant women receive a Tdap booster in the early portion of the third trimester, to protect their newborns from pertussis after birth. It’s also recommended that any adult who did not receive a Tdap booster do so, and that boosters be given every ten years.

Does the DTaP Vaccine Have Side Effects?

When you begin vaccinating your child, you may feel worried about what side effects any particular vaccine may have. In general, you should know that all vaccines undergo rigorous testing, and even though most have side effects, usually the side effects are mild, such as soreness at the vaccine site, and low grade fever.

Except in rare cases, your child’s experience of a vaccine’s side effects will be much more mild than if they had contracted the disease that the vaccine is meant to protect them from.

DTaP vaccines generally cause mild side effects, and also rarely cause allergic reactions. Most reactions will happen within one to three days of vaccination. Here’s what to know about possible vaccine side effects.

Most Common Mild Side Effects

  • 1 in 4 children will get a fever
  • 1 in 4 children will get redness and swelling at the vaccine site
  • 1 in 4 children will experience soreness at the vaccine site

These common reactions may become more prevalent and severe after doses four and five of DTaP. In these cases, your child may experience more widespread swelling of the arm or leg where the shot was given.

Other, Less Common Mild Side Effects

  • 1 in 3 children will be fussy and cranky
  • 1 in 10 children will be fatigued and have a poor appetite
  • 1 in 50 children will vomit

Uncommon, Moderate Side Effects

  • 1 in 14,000 children with have a seizure
  • 1 in 1,000 children will cry for over three hours
  • 1 in 16,000 children will experience a high fever over 105 degrees Fahrenheit

Rare Severe Side Effects

  • 1 in one million children will have a severe allergic reaction

Other reported severe reactions have included: seizures, comas, permanent brain damage, and decreased consciousness. These reactions have been so rare that experts have not been able to deduct definitively if they were caused by the vaccine.

What to Do If Your Child Has a Mild Side Effect

Low grade fevers and soreness at the vaccine site can be treated with age-appropriate pain medication, as recommended by your pediatrician. Cold packs and baths can also help reduce pain and swelling.

What to Do If Your Child Has a Severe Side Effect

Any moderate side effects should be reported to your pediatrician promptly. Severe side effects, such as a very high fever, hives, face swelling, swelling of the throat, breathing issues, rapid heartbeat, loss of consciousness, or anything else troubling necessitates emergency services.

Always go with your instincts: if you think something is wrong with your child, get them emergency care right away.

Should Any Child Skip The DTaP Vaccine?

Again, the vast majority of children will not have any adverse side effects from the DTaP vaccine, besides minor discomfort. But there are some children who should not receive a DTaP vaccine, including:

  • Children who are moderately or severely ill at time of the vaccine (children who have minor illnesses, like the common cold, can receive the DTaP vaccine)
  • Children who have had major allergic reactions to previous DTaP vaccines
  • Children who experienced a brain or nervous system disease as a result of a DTaP vaccine

A Word from Verywell

The topic of vaccinating your baby or child can get very heated in parenting circles these days. Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation about vaccines floating around. That can make learning about the effectiveness and safety of vaccines very confusing for parents.

We all want to do what is best for our children, and that means looking to trusted, reliable sources of information to get facts about vaccines. Thankfully, organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Academy of American Pediatrics (AAP) can provide you with balanced data so that you can make smart choices.

Your pediatrician is also a wonderful resource for you and can answer your questions based on your concerns, as well as the particular health needs of your child.

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4 Sources
Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis vaccine recommendations. Updated January 22, 2020.

  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Diphtheria. Updated May 26, 2020.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. About pertussis. Updated November 18, 2019.

  4. American Academy of Pediatrics. DTaP vaccine: What you need to know. Updated June 30, 2014.