Whooping cough (known medically as pertussis) is a highly contagious respiratory tract infection caused by a type of bacteria called Bordetella pertussis. Although it initially resembles an ordinary cold, whooping cough may eventually turn more serious, particularly in infants. Whooping cough is most contagious before the coughing starts.

This is one of the most common vaccine-preventable childhood diseases in the United States. It's important to remember that both children and adults can get whooping cough. Since the 1980s, there's been a dramatic increase in the number of cases of whooping cough, especially among teens (10 – 19 years of age) and babies less than 5 months of age. In 2005, there were more than 25,000 total reported cases. In rare cases, whooping cough can be deadly; the disease causes an estimated 10 to 20 deaths each year in the United States.

Symptoms of Whooping Cough

  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Low grade fever
  • Cough

After 1-2 weeks, severe coughing begins. Children with the disease cough violently and rapidly, over and over, until the air is gone from their lungs and they're forced to inhale with a loud "whooping" sound.

Complications of Whooping Cough

Adults are at highest risk for:

  • Bacterial pneumonia
  • Rib fracture

Other complications of adult pertussis occur rarely.

Infants are at highest risk for:

  • Apnea
  • Pneumonia (about 1 in 10 children)
  • Seizures (about 1 in 50)
  • Encephalopathy (about 1 in 250)

How Whooping Cough Spreads

People with whooping cough usually spread the disease by coughing or sneezing while in close contact with others, who then breathe in the pertussis bacteria. Many infants who get whooping cough are infected by older siblings or parents who might not even know they have the disease, making it important for all teens and adults to be adequately vaccinated.

How to Prevent Whooping Cough

The best way to prevent whooping cough is to get vaccinated. There are vaccines for children, pre-teens, teens and adults. The childhood vaccine is called DTaP, and the vaccine for adolescents and adults is called Tdap. Both protect against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis. A Tdap booster can be given anytime regardless of the date of one’s last tetanus booster. Adults who want to protect themselves and any infants and children they may be in contact with should contact their healthcare provider about receiving Tdap.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention - www.cdc.gov/pertussis