Whooping cough (also known as pertussis) is a highly contagious respiratory disease that spreads easily from person-to-person. In many children, whooping cough is marked by a severe hacking cough followed by a high-pitched intake of breath that sounds like a “whoop.” However, 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 get whooping cough, but the disease can be very dangerous for babies, as they are at particularly high risk of serious complications, hospitalization and death. In the first 6 months of life, babies are at high risk for complications from whooping cough, even if they are healthy.
Whooping cough spreads from person to person when coughing or sneezing or when spending a lot of time near one another where you share breathing space. Since symptoms of whooping cough can vary, some people with whooping cough may just have a mild cough or what seems like a common cold, and they can end up spreading it to babies they are in close contact with. In fact, most unvaccinated children living with a family member with whooping cough will get the disease.
The younger the baby is when he or she gets whooping cough, the more likely it is that she will need treatment in the hospital. About half of infants younger than 1 year who get the disease need care in the hospital, and of those babies, about 1 out of 4 will get pneumonia, and 1 or 2 out of 100 will die.
Pertussis is still common in the United States, and outbreaks still occur putting children at great risk. According to the CDC, there are about 10,000 to 50,000 cases of whooping cough and up to 20 deaths each year in the U.S.
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:
- 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 whooping cough 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.
Vaccination is the best way to protect people of all ages, especially infants and young children, from whooping cough. The pertussis vaccine is combined with vaccines that protect against diphtheria and tetanus. For babies and young children, the vaccine is called DTaP. For preteens, teens, adults and pregnant women, the vaccine is called Tdap.
Babies and Children
For the best protection against whooping cough, your child needs all five recommended doses of the DTaP vaccine. Your child should receive doses at:
- 2 months
- 4 months
- 6 months
- Between 15 and 18 months
- Between 4 and 6 years
Preteens and Teens
The Tdap vaccine is the “booster” shot that helps protect preteens and teens from tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis (whooping cough). All preteens are recommended to receive one dose of Tdap when they are 11-12 years old. Teens who did not get the Tdap vaccine at that age should get it as soon as possible.
Tdap is especially important for anyone who is in close contact with a baby younger than 12 months of age, since young children are at higher risk for serious whooping cough complications.
All adults (19 years of age and older) who have not yet received one dose of Tdap as a preteen, teen or adult, need to get a Tdap vaccine, which protects against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis (whooping cough). This vaccine will not only protect you from these diseases, but will also help protect those around you. This is especially important, if you are planning to be around any babies, who are at risk of serious complications from whooping cough. So, if you don’t recall getting a Tdap vaccine, you should ask your healthcare provider. After that, adults need a Td vaccine (tetanus and diphtheria only) booster shot every ten years.
Women should get a dose of Tdap during the 3rd trimester of every pregnancy to protect themselves and their newborns from whooping cough. The recommended time to get the shot is during the 27th through 36th week of pregnancy, preferably during the earlier part of this time period.
Studies have shown that Tdap vaccination during pregnancy is safe and effective for pregnant women and their babies. This recommendation is supported by CDC, American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and American College of Nurse Midwives.
The CDC states that Tdap vaccination during pregnancy is important so your baby can be born with protection against whooping cough.This early protection is important because your baby is at the greatest risk for catching whooping cough and having severe, potentially life-threatening complications from the infection during the first few months of life.
Learn more in the Pregnancy section.
According to the CDC, when you get a Tdap vaccine during your pregnancy, you will have antibodies in your breast milk that you can share with your baby through breastfeeding. However, your baby will not get protective antibodies immediately if you wait to get the Tdap vaccine until after delivering your baby. This is because it takes about 2 weeks after getting vaccinated for your body to create antibodies. Learn more about the benefits of breastfeeding.
To ensure that your entire family is up-to-date on their vaccines, check out the CDC’s recommended immunization schedules and talk to your healthcare provider.