Pertussis, widely known as “whooping cough,” is a contagious bacterial infection of the respiratory system. It’s called “whooping cough” because children infected with it gasp for air between the fierce bouts of coughing that it causes.
More than half of the victims of whooping cough are infants. Particularly intense coughing can cause infants with whooping cough to stop breathing for several seconds at a time. Whooping cough, which can lead to pneumonia, is treated with antibiotic medications. Once deadly, it can now be prevented with a vaccine.
Initial whooping cough symptoms are mild coughing, sneezing and a runny nose, which progresses to include severe spasms of coughing with the characteristic "whooping" sound as the child gasps in a struggle to breathe. Coughing spells may be followed by vomiting that can lead to dehydration and malnutrition. Other complications include ear aches, pneumonia and seizures. Whooping cough can take up to six months to resolve entirely.
Whooping cough is preventable with vaccine
"Clinicians in all UC Davis pediatric outpatient clinics, including its subspecialty clinics, routinely check to ensure all patients have up-to-date vaccinations," said Dean Blumberg, associate professor of pediatrics and chief of pediatric infectious diseases.
"We also have increased efforts to assuage the fears of vaccine-hesitant parents about the importance of having their children immunized and have stepped-up testing to differentiate other upper-respiratory conditions from whooping cough."
Tdap vaccine recommended for pregnant women to protect newborns
To protect their newborns, all pregnant women should get vaccinated against whopping cough (Tdap immunization) during each and every pregnancy. Although women can receive booster shots after delivery in the hospital, postpartum immunization is less effective and is considered a back-up plan, he said.
Babies up to three months of age have a 90 percent decreased risk of getting pertussis if their mother was vaccinated against pertussis when they were pregnant.
Up-to-date vaccinations for whooping cough needed for other children, adults
Parents also should ensure other children in their households have up-to-date vaccinations. Children routinely receive a pertussis booster at 11-12 years of age. If they have not received this dose, it is recommended that they, along with other adults in the family, get the whooping cough vaccine once to boost their immunity.
Older adults who are sick with a cough should avoid contact with infants and children until the illness subsides.
Recognizing whooping cough
- First stage: Runny nose, sneezing, mild cough. This can last for one to two weeks.
- Second stage: Coughing worsens to include several forceful paroxysmal coughs, followed by a whooping sound as the child struggles to breathe. These coughing fits may be followed by vomiting, which can lead to malnutrition and dehydration. This can last for two to eight weeks.
- Third stage: A recovery phase lasting one to two weeks. Full recovery from whooping cough can take up to six months.
Resources for more information about whooping cough
- U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention Whooping Cough website
- Hear what whooping cough sounds like
Infants and children up to 6 years old receive the whooping cough vaccination as part of the DTaP, or diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis inoculation. Vaccinations should occur at 2 months, 4 months, 6 months, 15-to-18 months and 4- to 6-years-of-age.
The adolescent/adult Tdap vaccine is recommended once at 11-12 years of age, and for older teens and adults if they have not received this dose.
Pregnant women should receive Tdap vaccine during every pregnancy, preferably at 27-36 weeks gestation.