Whooping Cough: Your Questions Answered

A cough can be a reaction to a tickle in one’s throat, a symptom of the common cold or even a device for interrupting conversations. But when it’s caused by pertussis (whooping cough), a highly contagious bacterial infection, a cough can be far more serious. It can break ribs, induce vomiting and leave its victims gasping for breath. Most children in the U.S. are immunized against whooping cough, yet it is still one of the most common vaccine-preventable diseases in America.

To help you learn more about whooping cough, we’ve answered a few frequent questions.

Who is most at risk or vulnerable to whooping cough?

Pertussis infection can be most severe in infants — more than half of babies under age 1 who develop whooping cough are hospitalized.* It can lead to pneumonia, convulsions, encephalopathy (brain disease), brain damage and even death. One of the most serious symptoms in infants is apnea, when breathing slows or stops for a period of time. Symptoms are usually far less severe in adults and older children.

How can I tell if my child has whooping cough?

The first few weeks of pertussis infection often resemble the common cold. Symptoms may include a runny nose, low-grade fever and mild or occasional cough. By week two or three, the violent, rapid coughing fits ending with a gasp for air (the whooping sound) begin. The coughing fits can cause exhaustion and vomiting. It’s important to note that many infants have only a mild cough or none at all, yet there are still serious risks, such as apnea. If you suspect your child has whooping cough, see your doctor.

I was vaccinated against whooping cough when I was an infant. Do I need to be vaccinated again?

You might. Since its introduction in the 1940s, the pertussis vaccine has reduced cases of whooping cough by nearly 80 percent.* But the vaccine is not completely effective, and its protection diminishes over time. Pre-teens, teenagers and adults need a one-time booster shot, called Tdap. Pregnant women who haven’t received the booster should get it during the latter half of pregnancy or directly after giving birth in order to protect their infants from infection. In addition, anyone who hasn’t received a Tdap and expects to come into contact with an infant should get the shot at least two weeks in advance. While the vaccine may not completely protect against the disease, it can make infection less severe. 

How can I protect my child from whooping cough?

Pertussis spreads through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes in close contact with others. Vaccination is the best prevention, but it’s also important to keep your child away from those with coughs or cold symptoms. And because many infants contract the disease from parents, siblings or caregivers who don’t know they are infected, it’s equally important for adults and older children to be up-to-date on their pertussis vaccination. In addition, you can protect your child by enforcing frequent hand-washing, covering up coughs and sneezes, and not sharing cups and silverware. If someone in your household develops whooping cough, early treatment with antibiotics can help make infection less severe and prevent its spread.

* Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention,

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