Recent Australian research has found that many adults over the age of 50 have little protection against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis (whooping cough) as immunity from childhood vaccinations declines with age.
Tetanus is caused by bacteria that live in soil, dust and manure and enter the body through a break in the skin, such as a cut or burn, often from gardening.
Tetanus causes severe muscle spasms and can lead to death from breathing difficulties, high blood pressure and abnormal heart rhythms. 25% of people over 50 are not immune to tetanus.
Diphtheria is a severe throat infection which can cause breathing problems, paralysis, heart failure and death. It is spread by coughing and sneezing or direct contact with an infected person.
Most cases of diphtheria are acquired overseas. 40% of people over the age of 50 are not protected against diphtheria.
Pertussis (whooping cough)
Pertussis is also caught from coughs and sneezes. It causes persistent bouts of coughing, often with vomiting and sometimes a 'whoop' when breathing in.
The infection is most severe in babies under 6 months of age and can lead to brain damage, pneumonia and death. In adults, it can be a distressing illness, with a cough lasting up to 3 months.
Do you need a booster?
All people should have a booster at age 50 unless immunised in the last 5 years. The combined tetanus-diphtheria-pertussis vaccine is preferred in most cases. The tetanus-diphtheria vaccine can be used if pertussis is not required.
If you get a tetanus-prone wound (e.g. contaminated or infected wounds, burns) you need a booster if it is over 5 years since your last tetanus injection.
People at higher risk of tetanus (e.g. gardeners, builders) and international travellers should consider having a booster every 10 years.
Adults often pass pertussis to young children, so a booster vaccination containing pertussis is advised for new and prospective parents, grandparents and adults working with children.
A new 4-in-1 vaccine is also available, combining polio with tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis. It is especially useful for travellers to areas where polio is found. Vaccination can cause mild discomfort or pain at the injection site, headache and fatigue. Serious side-effects are rare.
Speak to your GP or visit http://immunise.health.gov.au/handbook.htm.
Please note this information was correct at time of printing.
For up to date information, speak to your doctor.