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The Dangers of Whooping Cough (Pertussis)

Are you at risk?

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.

Serious illness or complications from whooping cough are almost unheard of in these age groups. Most people never seek medical attention. If they do, doctors may misdiagnose pertussis symptoms as bronchitis or asthma.

Despite the mildness of their illness, however, adults with pertussis are still infectious. An unvaccinated person in the household stands up to a 90% chance of catching pertussis if a family member brings the bacterial infection home.

In the rare instances when adults are diagnosed with pertussis, it’s usually after they develop a cough. But transmission is most likely to occur early in the illness, during the sniffling that’s indistinguishable from a common cold. So by the time of diagnosis, “exposure to others in the home has probably already occurred,” says Keyserling.

Recognizing Pertussis in Your Child and Yourself

It can be extremely difficult to identify whooping cough in adults and vaccinated children because there may be minimal or no cold symptoms at first, and few severe coughing fits -- just an annoying cough that lasts for up to two months. Only 20% to 40% of adolescents and adults will have a “whoop.”

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