Girl lies in bed coughing, with her hand covering her mouth. A teddy bear is next to her.

Whooping cough is spiking in the U.S.: How to protect yourself and your family

'Whooping cough' vaccine can protect children and adults from this extremely contagious illness


The number of people with pertussis, widely known as “whooping cough,” has been rising globally, with more than 590 cases reported in California alone in 2024. Pertussis 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 those with whooping cough are infants. Particularly intense coughing can cause infants to stop breathing for several seconds at a time, and whooping cough can lead to pneumonia (lung infection). But it also can be treated with antibiotic medications. Once a deadly illness, it can now be prevented with a vaccine.

Initial whooping cough symptoms are mild coughing and a runny nose, which progresses into 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, then dehydration and malnutrition.

How to recognize whooping cough in three stages

  • First stage: Runny nose and mild cough. This can last for one to two weeks.
  • Second stage: Coughing worsens to include several forceful violent 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.

Other complications can include ear aches, pneumonia, seizures and encephalopathy (brain dysfunction that can include confusion, memory loss and personality changes). One in 100 people will die from their complications.

"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, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at UC Davis Children’s Hospital. "We also have increased efforts to ease 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."

Vaccination schedule

To protect newborns, doctors recommend vaccination during pregnancy. Pregnant women should receive the Tdap vaccine during every pregnancy, preferably at 27-36 weeks of gestation.

If not vaccinated during pregnancy, women who deliver their babies at UC Davis Medical Center are offered booster shots while they are postpartum in the hospital. Parents are counseled to ensure other children in their households have up-to-date vaccinations, and fathers are encouraged to get booster shots from their primary care physicians.

Babies up to three months have a 90 percent decreased risk of getting pertussis if their mother was vaccinated against it when pregnant.

Infants and children up to age 6 receive the whooping cough vaccination as part of the DTaP shot — diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis shot. Vaccinations should occur at 2 months, 4 months, 6 months, 15-to-18 months and 4 to 6 years of age.

The adolescent and adult Tdap vaccine is recommended once at 11-12 years of age, and also for older teens and adults if they have not received this dose.

Older adults who are sick with a cough should avoid contact with infants and children until the illness subsides.