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Facts About Whooping Cough for Adults

grandparents, parents with new babyWhat is Whooping Cough?

Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, is a serious infection that spreads easily from person to person. The disease causes uncontrollable, violent coughing spells that makes it hard to breathe, eat, or sleep. After severe coughing fits, an individual with whooping cough often needs to take deep breaths which may result in a “whooping” sound.

Whooping cough can lead to pneumonia or hospitalization and can affect people of all ages. It can be very serious, even deadly, for babies less than one year old. Common sources of infection in babies are older siblings, parents, and caregivers. In recent years, as many as 20 babies younger than one year old have died from whooping cough each year in the US.

Whooping cough has been on the rise in the US since an all-time low of just over 1,000 cases were reported in 1976. More than 48,000 cases were reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in 2012, the most recent peak year, and nearly 19,000 cases were reported in 2017. However, many cases go undiagnosed and unreported.


Early symptoms of whooping cough are similar to the common cold or bronchitis and may include runny nose, sneezing, and mild or occasional cough. Coughing spasms become progressively worse, and can be accompanied by vomiting and exhaustion. Sometimes a “whoop” sound occurs while gasping for breath at the end of a coughing spell. The coughing spells can continue for up to 10 weeks or more. Adults may not have the classic “whoop,” if they have a milder case of the disease.


Whooping cough is most contagious before the coughing starts, so the most effective way to prevent it is to get vaccinated. The whooping cough vaccine for adults (and adolescents) is called Tdap (tetanus-diphtheria-acellular pertussis). Younger children get a different formulation, called DTaP (diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis). Both help protect against tetanus, diphtheria, and whooping cough.

Who Should get the Tdap Vaccine?

  • CDC recommends that preteens get one dose of Tdap between the ages of 11 and 12 years to boost their immunity. CDC also recommends that adults age 19 years and older, receive a single dose of Tdap in place of the next Td (tetanus-diphtheria) booster recommended every 10 years. In addition, CDC has issued recommendations for specific adult populations to get a Tdap booster without waiting for the usual 10-year interval for Td, including:
    • Pregnant women need Tdap during the third trimester (between 27 and 36 weeks of every pregnancy). After receiving the Tdap vaccine, the body produces protective antibodies, some of which are passed onto the baby before birth. This helps provide some protection before the baby can be vaccinated.
    • All adults, regardless of age, who anticipate having close contact with babies younger than 12 months (e.g., parents, grandparents, and childcare providers), ideally at least two weeks before beginning close contact with the baby.
    • All healthcare personnel in hospitals or ambulatory care settings. Priority is given to vaccination of workers in direct contact with babies younger than 12 months.

Vaccine Safety

The Tdap vaccine is safe. Reactions to the vaccine are usually mild. The most common reactions after vaccination are pain and redness at the injection site, mild fever, headache, and fatigue. Other adverse events are possible, but rare. A healthcare professional should be informed if you developed a severe reaction following a prior tetanus vaccination. The potential risks associated with whooping cough are much greater than the potential risks associated with the vaccine. You cannot get whooping cough from the vaccine.

Whooping Cough and Vaccine Facts

  • FACT:  A booster vaccine for adolescents and adults, known as Tdap (tetanus-diphtheria-acellular pertussis), helps protect against pertussis or “whooping cough.”
  • FACT: CDC recommends that adults receive a single dose of Tdap in place of one Td (tetanus-diphtheria) booster, which is recommended every 10 years for adults.
  • FACT: Certain adults should not wait to get their Tdap vaccine, including adults in close contact with babies younger than 12 months, healthcare personnel—especially those in direct contact with babies younger than 12 months—and pregnant women who should receive a single dose of Tdap during the third trimester (between 27 and 36 weeks) of each pregnancy.
  • FACT:  Whooping cough is a very contagious respiratory infection that has been on the rise in the US over the last decade, across all age groups.
  • FACT: Protection against whooping cough from early childhood vaccines may wear off, leaving adults and adolescents at risk for infection.
  • FACT: In China, whooping cough is known as the “cough of 100 days” due to the prolonged, dry cough that is experienced by infected individuals.
  • FACT: Whooping cough can be difficult to diagnose because early symptoms may appear like the common cold or bronchitis.
  • FACT: Whooping cough causes coughing spells that can affect breathing, eating, and sleeping. It can even lead to cracked ribs and hospitalization.
  • FACT:  Whooping cough can cause coughing spells that may continue for 10 weeks or longer. Sometimes a “whoop” sound occurs while gasping for breath after a bad coughing spell; however, the classic “whoop” may not be present due to milder disease, especially in adults who have been previously vaccinated.
  • FACT:  Many cases of whooping cough are not diagnosed or reported. While nearly 19,000 cases of whooping cough were reported to CDC in 2017, experts estimate the true number to be much higher.
  • FACT: Older siblings, parents, and grandparents are often the source of whooping cough in babies, who have the highest rates of whooping cough-related death.

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