What is Whooping Cough?

Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, is a highly contagious respiratory infection caused by the bacterium Bordatella pertussis. It affects people of all ages but can be very serious for babies less than a year old.

People with whooping cough commonly have severe coughing fits. This causes them to take deep breaths right after and make the “whooping” sound.

Whooping cough spreads from person to person through coughing, sneezing and close contact. Infected people are most contagious up to two weeks after the cough begins. Many babies who get whooping cough are infected by family members or caregivers who may not even know they are carrying the bacteria.

What are the symptoms and complications of whooping cough?

Whooping cough symptoms usually develop within five to 10 days after exposure to the bacteria. However, it can be as long as three weeks before symptoms appear.

In early stages, whooping cough can have cold-like symptoms. Because of this, healthcare professionals may not diagnose it until later stages. About half of babies younger than a year old who get whooping cough will need hospital care.

In babies, the cough may be minimal or not there at all. Babies may also have “apnea” – a pause in their breathing pattern.

Early symptoms of whooping cough include:

  • Runny nose
  • Low-grade fever
  • Mild, occasional cough
  • Apnea – a pause in breathing (in babies)

After a week or two, the illness progresses and other symptoms appear.

Later-stage symptoms of whooping cough include:

  • Fits of rapid coughs followed by deep inhales and a high-pitched “whoop” sound
  • Vomiting during or after coughing fits
  • Exhaustion after coughing fits
  • Sore, watery eyes

Coughing fits may happen more frequently as the disease progresses. Teens and adults usually recover without any issues. However, some complications that develop may be a result of strenuous coughing. This can be bruised or cracked ribs, abdominal hernias or broken blood vessels in the skin or whites of the eyes.

In babies, complications can be more severe and may include:

  • Pneumonia (lung inflammation)
  • Slowed or stopped breathing
  • Dehydration or weight loss from feeding difficulty
  • Seizures
  • Brain damage

Vaccination is the best way to protect against whooping cough and serious complications resulting from whooping cough.

Who should get the whooping cough vaccine?

The CDC recommends people of all ages get the whooping cough vaccine.

Today there are two vaccines that help protect against whooping cough: DTaP and Tdap. Both of these also protect against tetanus and diphtheria.

  • DTaP – recommended for children younger than 7 years of age.
  • Tdap – recommended for older children, teens and adults.

Babies and children younger than seven years old receive DTaP vaccine a total of five times:

  1. 2 months of age
  2. 4 months of age
  3. 6 months of age
  4. 15 to 18 months of age
  5. 4 to 6 years of age

Preteens should receive the Tdap booster between 11 and 12 years of age. Adults should receive another dose of Tdap every 10 years.

Pregnant women should also get the Tdap vaccine during the third trimester of any pregnancy.

Talk with your doctor about which whooping cough vaccine is right for you.

Is the whooping cough vaccine safe?

The whooping cough vaccine is safe and effective. Although a person can still get whooping cough after vaccination, they usually experience milder symptoms and less complications than those who are not vaccinated.

Most people do not experience any serious side effects from the vaccine, although some may occur. Most side effects are mild and may include soreness at the site of the shot, fever, headache or fatigue.