Are You at Risk for Whooping Cough?

Medically Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD on January 22, 2014

It’s an illness that gets its name from the “whoop” sound people often make when trying to breathe between coughs. Whooping cough, or pertussis, is an infection in your lungs and breathing tubes. It is most dangerous for babies, but adults and teens are actually more likely to get the illness. When older children or adults get it, there’s a good chance they won’t know it. It may seem like just a cold with a cough that lingers. You can pass it on even without the telltale cough. Discharge from a simple sneeze -- or even just breathing -- can spread it to your infant and others in your house.

Serious Problems in Infants

Bad coughing spells can make it hard for an infant to drink, eat, and breathe.

"It can lead to pneumonia, malnutrition, seizures, and lung and heart failure," says Kathryn M. Edwards, MD, a professor of pediatrics and director of Vanderbilt University’s Vaccine Research Program.

Two in three babies under a year old who get whooping cough have trouble breathing. About half the babies who get it end up in the hospital, where staff can monitor breathing, give oxygen if needed, and suction thick discharge.

Protect Your Family

Vaccinations against pertussis are not foolproof. Even if you were vaccinated against it as a young child, that doesn’t mean you won’t get it. But if you do get it, your symptoms should be less severe.

There are two different vaccines to protect against whooping cough, as well as diphtheria and tetanus: DTaP and Tdap.

DTaP is for children under 7 years old.

Tdap is a shot that has been given to older children and adults since 2005.

To keep your family safe:

  • Each time you are pregnant, get a Tdap shot during the third trimester. The vaccine will help your body create disease-fighting antibodies. "Moms pass the antibodies on to babies before birth," Edwards says. This helps protect your baby before she gets her first DTaP vaccine at 2 months old.
  • Make sure family and household members get a Tdap shot 2 weeks before coming into contact with your baby. Because pertussis vaccines don't offer lifetime protection, anyone over age 10 who will be around the baby should get Tdap. That includes siblings, parents, grandparents, cousins, and caregivers.
  • Make sure your baby gets all doses of the DTaP vaccine on schedule. Your baby will get five doses of the vaccine in all, between the age of 2 months and 4 to 6 years old. The vaccines will keep your baby about 90% protected from getting whooping cough for at least 1 year after the last dose. Most children won't get whooping cough for the next 4 years.

Whooping Cough Symptoms

It usually starts with a runny or stuffy nose and sometimes a mild cough. After 1 to 2 weeks, you'll likely start coughing harder, especially at night. Whooping cough can last 10 weeks.

When to Call a Doctor

Call your baby’s doctor if they have cold symptoms and:

  • Has not had the first three pertussis vaccines and has been exposed to someone who has a chronic cough
  • Has a severe cough, trouble breathing, or difficulty feeding, or you are concerned

If you think you may have whooping cough, call your doctor promptly, especially if there is a whooping cough outbreak in your area.

Early treatment with antibiotics may ease your symptoms and keep the illness from spreading.

Show Sources


CDC: "Whooping Cough (Pertussis) -- Fact Sheet for Parents," "Protect Babies from Whooping Cough (Pertussis)," "Pertussis (Whooping Cough) Vaccination," "Td or Tdap Vaccine: What You Need to Know," "Pertussis Frequently Asked Questions," "Pertussis (Whooping Cough) Diagnosis and Treatment."

James Cherry, MD, MSc, distinguished professor, pediatric infectious diseases, David Geffen School of Medicine, UCLA.

Kathryn M. Edwards, MD, Sarah H. Sell and Cornelius Vanderbilt Chair in Pediatrics, and director, Vanderbilt Vaccine Research Program, Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, Nashville, TN. "Whooping Cough."

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