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Whooping Cough Vaccine for Adults

Why your whooping cough vaccination could save a baby's life.
By Scott Harris
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

"We all thought it was a disease of yesteryear."

Like many people, that is what William Schaffner, MD, president of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, says he once believed about whooping cough. That perception changed dramatically in 2010, when 10 infants in California died during an outbreak of the disease.

The good news is that even though whooping cough (also called pertussis) is making a small resurgence, a very effective vaccine and a few basic precautions go a long way toward heading off disaster. Schaffner, who is also a professor in Vanderbilt University School of Medicine's infectious diseases division and chair of the school's department of preventive medicine, recently spoke with WebMD about getting protected.

When do I need to get this vaccine, and how often?

"We vaccinate our children against whooping cough, of course, and that has been successful. But we've learned that once people become young adults, the immunity wanes a little, so now outbreaks are happening in various places around the country. There is a relatively new vaccine that adds whooping cough to the familiar diphtheria and tetanus shot. Next time you get this shot, it will likely be Tdap, which stands for tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis. That will protect patients and help prevent them from transmitting the disease to others."

Do adults get whooping cough, too?

"Adults are at risk. The illness is characterized by coughing spells that can come so closely together that they cause a spasm and prevent you from taking a breath. It can interfere with sleep, work, and eating. Sometimes people cough so much that they faint or even break a rib."

I don't have any kids living in the house -- should I be vaccinated?

"Those who most need protection are those around very young infants. Anyone who has contact with an infant should be protected. That includes Mom and Dad, older siblings, babysitters, grandparents, aunts, and uncles. This creates a cocoon of protection around the infant."

Any risks I should know about?

"People will get a sore arm for about a day -- anyone who has ever received a tetanus shot knows this is a common reaction."

Reviewed on January 20, 2011

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