What is whooping cough?
Whooping cough, also called pertussis, is an easily spread disease caused by the bacteria Bordetella pertussis. In the 1930’s, before there was a vaccine, whooping cough was common — over 200,000 cases per year in the US — and it caused a lot of deaths in babies. A vaccine was introduced in the 1940’s, and by the 1970’s the number of cases of whooping cough decreased to less than 5,000 per year.
Do people still get whooping cough?
Yes. Since the 1980’s there has been a rise in the number of cases of whooping cough. In 2010 there were thousands of cases in California alone, and 9 babies less than 6 months old died of whooping cough in our state. Other states had outbreaks too. In 2012 there were 48,277 cases in the US, which is a big and very concerning rise.
Who can get whooping cough?
People of all ages can get whooping cough but babies are most in danger of having problems from it. The most common problem is pneumonia. Pneumonia is one of the big reasons why babies die from whooping cough. Other problems are seizures and brain damage.
How does whooping cough spread?
Whooping cough is spread by tiny wet drops produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks. People with whooping cough can spread the disease from the time they get a runny nose until 3 weeks after their cough starts. People with whooping cough can prevent spreading the disease if they take the right antibiotics.
Older children and adults, including parents, often have mild disease. They can spread whooping cough and not know it. This is because they do not feel very sick so they do not see a doctor or get treated. People with whooping cough should get treated with antibiotics. They should avoid close contact with others, especially babies and pregnant women, until they have taken 5 days of the right antibiotics.
How can I protect myself and my family from getting sick with whooping cough?
The best way to protect yourself and your family from getting sick is to get vaccinated.
- Everyone should get the whooping cough vaccine. This is especially important for infants, but it’s also important for children, teens, and adults who will be around babies or pregnant women.
- The vaccine used in children younger than age 7 is called DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus, and acellular pertussis vaccine).
- The vaccine used in people age 7 and older is called Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, and acellular pertussis vaccine).
- Pregnant women should get the whooping cough vaccine (Tdap) during the 3rd trimester (27-36 weeks) of every pregnancy. This helps protect the baby. Tdap is safe to get during pregnancy. If it’s not possible to get the vaccine during pregnancy, the woman should get it as soon as possible after giving birth.
- When a woman is pregnant, family members and anyone else who will be around the newborn baby should make sure they have had at least one Tdap vaccine. If they haven’t, or if they are not sure, they should get a Tdap right away. It is best to get it at least 2 weeks before being around the infant.
- The best place to be vaccinated is at your own doctor’s office. If you do not have a health care provider, or your provider does not have the vaccine you need, click here to find other places you can go.
- California school rules require all students to get DTaP vaccine before entering elementary school, and Tdap vaccine before entering 7th-12th grade. Children who cannot prove vaccination or exemption status will not be allowed school entry.
It is important for some people who have had close contact to persons with whooping cough to get antibiotic medications. These people include:
- Young children
- Pregnant women
- People who have close contact with pregnant women and young children (including health care workers)
If you know that you or family members have been around someone with whooping cough, contact your doctor. Close contact is defined as sharing toys, food, or utensils, face-to-face contact, direct exposure to cough, sneeze, or secretions, or sharing a confined space for over one hour.
All people should practice healthy habits. Examples include washing hands often, covering coughs and staying home when sick. Click here to learn more about healthy habits.
What are the symptoms and signs of whooping cough?
Whooping cough has 3 stages:
- In the first stage there is runny nose, sneezing, a fever, and a mild cough that gets worse over 1-2 weeks.
- During the second stage people have coughing attacks. At the end of each attack, there can be a high-pitched “whoop” sound. This can be a dangerous stage for babies and young children. During coughing attacks they may turn blue and have difficulty breathing. Vomiting and tiredness can follow these cough attacks. This stage usually lasts 1-6 weeks.
- In the third stage the cough slowly disappears over 2-3 weeks. Many people will have coughing attacks with later colds or other infections.
The whooping cough vaccine is very good but not 100% effective. Its protection goes away over time. People who have had whooping cough in the past or who have had a whooping cough vaccine can still get the disease. Their symptoms are different and are usually not as bad as those described above. It is important to think about whooping cough even if you have been vaccinated or had the illness in the past.
If you think that you have whooping cough you should contact your doctor.
How is whooping cough treated?
Antibiotics are used to treat whooping cough. They are most helpful when started during the first stage of the disease. When taken early antibiotics can help with symptoms. If taken later antibiotics may not help with symptoms but can stop the spread of the disease.
Useful Pertussis Links
For the Public
- Family Members Need Pertussis and Flu Vaccines [English] [Spanish] [Chinese]
- CDC Pertussis Page
- California Department of Public Health Pertussis Page
- San Francisco Immunization Coalition
Materials for the Public and Providers
- Quick Guide for Clinicians
- Protecting Young Children from Pertussis and Influenza
- Vax Fax
- Prenatal Tdap Vaccination Toolkit – learn more about conducting a Quality Improvement project to assess Tdap vaccination rates for your pregnant patients
- Read Cocooning: A Strategy to Prevent Pertussis in Infants, published in the May 2011 issue of San Francisco Medicine Magazine