About Tetanus, Diphtheria, and Pertussis

Pertussis (Whooping Cough)

Pertussis is a highly contagious infection of the respiratory tract. Although symptoms vary among adolescents and adults, common initial symptoms of pertussis may include runny nose, sneezing, low-grade fever, and mild cough. The cough gradually becomes severe, leading to paroxysmal spasms of severe coughing, whooping, and/or posttussive vomiting lasting 1–6 weeks. Infected individuals who do not have visible symptoms can still spread the disease to others. The standard and preferred laboratory test for diagnosis of pertussis is isolation of Bordetella pertussis by a sample culture.

Whooping Cough is dangerous for babies

Whooping cough can cause serious and sometimes life threatening complications in babies, especially within the first six months of life. About half of babies who get whooping cough end up in the hospital. Since 2010, we've see between 10,000 and 50,000 cases of whooping cough each year in the United States. In fact, there are cases reported in every state. 2012 was a record year with more than 48,000 cases, the most cases that we have seen in the past 60 years. Most of the deaths each year are in babies younger than 3 months of age. Since 2010, about 10 to 20 babies die from whooping cough each year in the United States. Vaccinating pregnant women in their third trimester, between 27 and 36 weeks, can give their newborns short-term whooping cough protection (immunity). (source: CDC Whooping Cough is Deadly for Babies)


Tetanus (lockjaw) is a serious disease that causes painful tightening of the muscles, usually all over the body. It can lead to "locking" of the jaw so the victim cannot open their mouth or swallow. Tetanus leads to death in about 1 in 10 cases. Tetanus does not spread from person to person. The bacteria are usually found in soil, dust and manure and enter the body through breaks in the skin - usually cuts or puncture wounds caused by contaminated objects.

Today, tetanus is uncommon in the United States, with an average of 29 reported cases per year from 1996 through 2009. Nearly all cases of tetanus are among people who have never received a tetanus vaccine, or adults who don't stay up to date on their 10-year booster shots. 


Diphtheria is serious disease caused by bacteria. It spreads from person to person by coughing or sneezing. The infection starts out like the common cold, causing sore throat with low-grade fever and chills. Next, the bacteria coat the back of the nose or throat, making it hard to breathe. This lining can be bluish, gray, or green and can cause neck swelling when the disease is severe. About 10% of people with diphtheria die from the disease. In children younger than age 5 years, 20% may die.




Updated 9/10/15


This website is supported by an independent educational grant from Merck and an educational grant from Sanofi Pasteur U.S. 
ACOG does not allow companies to influence its programs, publications, or advocacy positions.