Pertussis, also known as whooping cough, is a highly contagious respiratory disease that spreads easily from person-to-person through coughing and sneezing. In many children, it’s marked by a severe hacking cough followed by a high-pitched intake of breath that sounds like a “whoop.” Some babies with whooping cough don’t cough at all. Instead the disease can cause them to have a hard time breathing, or even stop breathing for short periods of time.

People of all ages can be affected by pertussis. However, it is most dangerous for babies, as they are at particularly high risk of severe complications, hospitalization and death. About half of babies younger than 1 year who get the disease need care in the hospital, and 1 out of 100 babies who get treatment in the hospital die. Most unvaccinated children living with a family member with pertussis will get the disease.

Pertussis is still common in the United States, and outbreaks still occur. Recently between 10,000 and 50,000 cases have been reported each year.


Symptoms usually take between 1 and 3 weeks to appear. They’re usually mild at first and resemble those of a common cold. After a week or two, signs and symptoms worsen. Thick mucus accumulates inside the airways causing uncontrollable, severe coughing. Violent coughing fits may cause:

  • Vomiting
  • A red or blue face (from not getting enough air)
  • Difficulty breathing, eating, drinking and/or sleeping
  • Broken ribs
  • Gasping for air after a coughing fit. This may cause a “whooping” sound.

Some babies with whooping cough only have a slight cough or no cough at all. Instead they may have a hard time breathing, or even stop breathing for short periods.

Adolescents and adults with pertussis may have prolonged coughing spells that last for weeks or months. However, the “whoop” sound may not be there and the illness is generally less severe than in young children, especially in those individuals who were previously vaccinated against whooping cough. In fact, some adolescents and adults who get pertussis may not even know they have the disease.


For the best protection against pertussis, your children need to receive all five recommended doses of the DTaP vaccine. Doses should be given at 2 months, 4 months, 6 months, between 15 and 18 months, and between 4 and 6 years of age. To see if your children are up-to-date on their vaccines, look at the CDC’s Immunization schedule and talk to your healthcare provider.

Adolescents and adults need to be vaccinated with one dose of Tdap, the adult version of the diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis vaccine. View the recommended adolescent and adult immunization schedules.

To best protect newborns from pertussis, pregnant women should be vaccinated with Tdap during every pregnancy during the third trimester (between the 27th and 36th week of pregnancy). Family members and caregivers of an infant should make sure to be up-to-date on their pertussis vaccinations at least two weeks before coming into close contact with the baby.

Visit the Grandparent’s Toolkit, Every Child By Two’s latest campaign to help protect newborns from vaccine-preventable diseases.