Whooping Cough: What Is It? Who’s Most at Risk? Who Needs to Be Vaccinated?

April 23, 2024

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News headlines showcasing outbreaks of infectious diseases are all too common these days. During the pandemic, many families missed routine medical appointments. That meant people weren’t getting routine vaccines. That, combined with a loud minority of folks working against science and vaccines, means we have many communities of people at risk. It’s easy to think the diseases we vaccinate for are a thing of the past. The reality is that they’re not. Those diseases still exist and when we don’t vaccinate, we create opportunities for them to spread. While measles is among the most feared vaccine-preventable diseases and seems to dominate today’s headlines, there are other serious diseases we can’t let our guard down against. Today, we highlight whooping cough. We explain what it is, who is most at risk, and who needs to be vaccinated (hint: nearly all of us).

What is whooping cough?

Whooping cough, or pertussis, is a serious highly infectious disease. It is caused by Bordetella pertussis bacteria and is spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Outbreaks can occur in school or child care settings and areas with a concentration of unvaccinated people. Whooping cough is common in the U.S.

Symptoms appear 7 – 14 days after infection and can last  6 – 10 weeks. While whooping cough may start as a simple cold, it progresses to cause uncontrollable coughing spells. Whooping cough is marked by the “whoop” sound that is made following coughing when an infected person inhales. Whooping cough can lead to pneumonia, seizures, brain damage, and even death. We’re lucky to live in a time when we have a vaccine to protect against whooping cough!

Who is most at risk for severe infection?

While whooping cough can affect people of all ages, it can be deadly for infants and young children. Some infants who get whooping cough will not cough at all. Instead, they will stop breathing and turn blue. About one third of babies who get whooping cough will be hospitalized. One in five will contract pneumonia and one in 100 will die. 

Infants cannot be vaccinated until two months of age. This is why the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends pregnant people receive the Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis) vaccine during the third trimester of each pregnancy. By getting vaccinated while pregnant, antibodies are passed to the infant who will then be protected for the first few months of life. The CDC also recommends surrounding babies with protection by ensuring those around them are up to date with whooping cough vaccines. This practice is also known as “cocooning.”

While complications are worse in infants and very young children, whooping cough can be serious for other populations as well. This includes pregnant people. Coughs from the disease can cause people to vomit, lose control of their bladder, faint, and even fracture ribs. Cases of whooping cough in adolescents and adults are likely under-reported because their symptoms are milder.

Who should be vaccinated for whooping cough?

While whooping cough is treated with antibiotics, there are vaccines to help prevent it. Everyone should be vaccinated for whooping cough. (Those who have had allergic reactions to previous pertussis vaccines or who have certain health conditions may not be able to be vaccinated.) The DTaP and Tdap vaccines protect against diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (whooping cough). Infants should get a dose of the DTaP vaccine at 2 months, 4 months, 6 months, 15 – 18 months, and between 4 and 6 years of age. Adolescents need the Tdap vaccine between 11 and 12 years old. In Colorado, the final dose of the DTaP vaccine is required before kindergarten entry, and the Tdap vaccine is required before entry into 6th grade. Adults should get the Tdap vaccine if they’ve never received it. A booster dose of Tdap should be given every 10 years to maintain protection.

It’s important to note that you can still get whooping cough even if you’ve been vaccinated. No vaccine is 100% effective. However, vaccinated people usually have much milder infections than unvaccinated people.

Vaccination is not something we do solely for ourselves. When we vaccinate, we help stop the spread of dangerous diseases and protect those in our communities who are most vulnerable, like infants too young to get a whooping cough vaccine. When enough of us are vaccinated, we won’t see any more headlines with outbreaks of preventable disease.

Immunize Colorado was formed in 1991 in response to alarmingly low vaccination rates across the state. At the time, only about 50% of Colorado’s children were adequately vaccinated. A group of physicians and other concerned individuals came together to strategize how to protect Coloradans from vaccine-preventable diseases and increase vaccine uptake. Much work remains. Discover ways to support our commitment to healthy Colorado communities at our website or make a donation today!

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