According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the number of pertussis cases is rising at epidemic rates in the United States.  More than twice the number of cases have been reported this year compared to last year at this time.  Pertussis (whooping cough) is caused by the bacteria Bordetella pertussis and can cause serious illness-especially in infants who are too young to be fully vaccinated.

Whooping cough is highly contagious and is spread by coughing or sneezing while in close contact with others, who then breathe in the pertussis bacteria. Many infants who get pertussis are infected by parents, older siblings or other caregivers who might not know they have the disease.

The disease starts like the common cold, with runny nose or congestion, sneezing, and maybe a mild cough or fever. But, after 1-2 weeks, severe coughing begins. Coughing fits due to pertussis infection can last for up to 10 weeks or more; sometimes known as the “100 day cough.”  Children with the disease cough violently and rapidly, over and over, until the air is gone from their lungs and they are forced to inhale with a loud “whooping” sound. Pertussis is most severe for babies; according to the CDC, more than half of infants less than 1 year of age who get the disease must be hospitalized. About 1 in 5 infants with pertussis get pneumonia, and about 1 in 100 will have convulsions. In rare cases, pertussis can be deadly, especially in infants

Whooping cough can be prevented with the pertussis vaccine, which is part of the DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus, acellular pertussis) immunization and Tdap immunization.  The Tdap vaccine is similar to DTaP, but, with lower concentrations of diphtheria and tetanus toxoid.

  • Children are recommended to get the DTaP vaccine. For maximum protection against pertussis, children need five DTaP shots. The first three shots are given at 2, 4, and 6 months of age. The fourth shot is given between 15 and 18 months of age, and a fifth shot is given when a child enters school, at 4-6 years of age.
  • To give additional protection in case immunity fades, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) now recommends that children ages 11-18 get a booster shot of the new combination vaccine (called Tdap), ideally when they’re 11 or 12 years old, instead of the Tetanus and Diphtheria (Td) booster routinely given at this age. Preteens going to the doctor for their regular checkup at 11 or 12 years of age should get a dose of Tdap.
  • Adults who didn’t get Tdap as a preteen or teen should get one dose of Tdap instead of the Td booster.
  • Most pregnant women who were not previously vaccinated with Tdap should get one dose of Tdap postpartum before leaving the hospital or birthing center. Getting vaccinated with Tdap is especially important for families with new infants.

The easiest thing for adults to do is to get Tdap instead of their next regular tetanus booster-the Td shot that they were supposed to get every 10 years. The dose of Tdap can be given earlier than the 10-year mark, so it’s a good idea for adults to talk to a healthcare provider about what’s best for their specific situation.

Sources: American Academy of Pediatrics, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, LifeWork Strategies EAP, and Washington and Adventist HealthCare Shady Grove Medical Centers.