Whooping cough (also called pertussis) is a highly contagious and serious infection that spreads easily from person to person through coughing and sneezing. It is spread through large respiratory droplets containing the bacteria, which produce toxins. The infection causes coughing spells that are so severe that it can be hard to breathe, eat, or sleep. Whooping cough can even lead to cracked ribs, pneumonia, or hospitalization.
Whooping cough is most dangerous for infants younger than age 3 months. Many babies who get whooping cough are infected by older siblings, parents, or caregivers who might not even know they have the disease.
Booster vaccines are needed throughout life, as protection from childhood vaccination wears off, putting adolescents and adults at risk for the infection.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), worldwide, there are an estimated 24.1 million cases of whooping cough and about 160,700 deaths per year. Since the 1980s, there has been an increase in the number of reported cases in the US.
Before pertussis vaccines became widely available in the 1940s, as many as 200,000 children got sick with whooping cough each year in the US and about 9,000 died as a result of the infection. In 2012, the most recent peak year, CDC reported 48,277 cases of pertussis in the US, but many more cases go undiagnosed and unreported.
The classic symptom is a “whoop,” the sound of someone gasping for breath during a bad coughing spell. But you can have the infection without the “whoop.” Whooping cough can be spread before symptoms appear. It can be tough to diagnose because early symptoms may appear like the common cold or bronchitis.
Whooping cough can be passed to vulnerable infants, those who have not yet received any or all of their vaccines. Babies can get pneumonia, slowed or stopped breathing, or seizures (convulsions). For babies, complications can be severe, even deadly.
CDC recommends whooping cough vaccines for people of all ages. Whooping cough (pertussis) vaccine is given as a combination vaccine with the vaccines for diphtheria and tetanus.
Babies and children (through age 6 years) should get 5 doses of diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis (DTaP) vaccine for maximum protection—a dose at 2, 4, and 6 months, one at 15-18 months, and another at 4-6 years.
Children age 7-10 years who were not fully vaccinated should receive a single dose of tetanus-diphtheria-pertussis (Tdap). If additional doses are needed, they should be vaccinated according to the catch-up schedule, with Tdap preferred as the first dose.
Children/teens age 11-18 years should receive Tdap as a single dose at age 11-12 years. If an adolescent was not fully vaccinated against diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis as a child, they should be vaccinated according to the catch-up schedule.
Adults age 19 years and older who have not been vaccinated with Tdap should get one dose as soon as feasible, followed by a booster dose (Td or Tdap) every 10 years.
Pregnant women should get a single dose of Tdap, preferably early in the third trimester of each pregnancy to help protect mother and baby.
It is also important that caretakers and those who are around infants are up to date with whooping cough vaccination. CDC recommends a single dose of Tdap for healthcare professionals who have not previously received Tdap and who have direct patient contact.
There are several antibiotics available to treat whooping cough, and early treatment is very important. Treatment can make the infection less serious if started early, before coughing fits begin. Antibiotics also may shorten the amount of time someone is contagious, which can help prevent spreading the disease to other people. Whooping cough can sometimes be very serious, requiring treatment in the hospital.
Fact: This serious infectious disease is on the rise in the US, across all age groups.
Fact: Protection against whooping cough from early childhood vaccines wears off. Adolescents and adults are at risk for infection and need booster doses of vaccine throughout life to remain protected.
Fact: Whooping cough causes coughing spells that can affect breathing, eating, and sleeping. The infection can even lead to cracked ribs and hospitalization.
Fact: Adults and adolescents can spread whooping cough to young infants who have not had all their vaccines. Babies are at greatest risk for serious complications, even death.
Updated: April 2021
Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
30-second animated public service announcement (PSA) on prevention of whooping cough, tetanus, and diphtheria
A mom talks about her daughter’s illness and the importance of adult vaccination