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The Dangers of Whooping Cough (Pertussis)

Are you at risk?

Infants Most Vulnerable to Serious Whooping Cough

Prior to the vaccine introduced in the 1950s, whooping cough was a common cause of death in young children. Since then, serious cases of pertussis have plummeted, but haven’t disappeared. If anything, whooping cough may be on the rise, experts believe.

Between 2000 and 2006, there were 156 deaths from pertussis reported to the federal government, according to Tami Skoff, MS, an epidemiologist at the CDC National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. “More than 90% of those were in children less than 1 year old,” Scoff tells WebMD. “And, fully 120 of the 156 deaths [77%] were newborns less than 1 month old.”

The vast majority of children survive whooping cough, even if unvaccinated. But Skoff tells WebMD that in children less than 1 year old, serious illness is the rule rather than the exception:

  • More than half must be hospitalized
  • More than half momentarily stop breathing
  • One in eight develop pneumonia
  • 1% have seizures

According to Keyserling, pertusssis is even more dangerous in infants under two months old:

  • Nine in 10 babies are hospitalized
  • 15% to 20% develop pneumonia
  • 2% to 4% have seizures
  • One in 100 will die from complications of pertussis

Protecting Babies From Whooping Cough With Vaccines

Babies in the U.S. are typically immunized against pertussis in a series of four injections: at 2 months old, 4 months old, 6 months old, and at 15 to 18 months. Until infants receive the third dose of pertussis vaccine at age 6 months, they’re particularly vulnerable to serious illness, experts say. Older children are given a fifth DTaP injection at 4 to 6 years old. And teens should receive a booster shot called Tdap at age 11.

“After that third dose, they have about 80% immunity,” says Skoff. And, if they become infected despite the vaccine, “the partial protection generally results in mild illness.”

Whooping Cough Is a Family Affair

“The real danger of pertussis is in unknowingly transmitting the illness to a vulnerable baby, either directly or through other people,” Skoff says. Most whooping cough infections in children come from family members, most of whom have no idea they have the disease, studies show.

Currently, about 80% to 90% of people in the U.S. have been vaccinated against whooping cough. No doubt many of them believe that means they’re immune to whooping cough indefinitely. But they’re not. Unlike some vaccines, which offer near-lifelong immunity, the pertussis vaccine wears off after 3-5 years.

That’s plenty of time to get children through their most vulnerable phase of life. After that, though, “it’s easy, and relatively common, to catch pertussis again,” says Keyserling.

Thanks to residual protection from the vaccine, whooping cough in adolescents and adults is usually mild. “Most often, it’s mistaken for a cold,” with a bothersome cough that lasts days to weeks after initial symptoms subside, according to Keyserling.

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