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Whooping Cough 101

By HERWriter
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Whooping cough (also known as pertussis) is very contagious and can cause serious illness and even death. Infants are extremely susceptible to whooping cough because they are too young to be fully vaccinated. It is recommended that infants and young children receive the recommended five shots on time. Adolescent and adult vaccination is also important, especially for families with new infants.

Whooping cough is a very contagious disease and caused by a type of bacteria called bordetella pertussis. Among vaccine-preventable diseases, whooping cough is one of the most commonly occurring ones in the United States.

There is high vaccine coverage of whooping cough for children nationwide. However, protection from the childhood vaccine fades over time. Adolescents and adults need to be revaccinated, even if they were completely vaccinated as children.

Also, whooping cough vaccines are very effective but not 100 percent effective. If whooping cough is circulating in the community, there is still a chance that a fully vaccinated person can catch this very contagious disease. When you or your child develops a cold that includes a prolonged or severe cough, it may be whooping cough. The best way to know is to contact your doctor.

Whooping cough can cause serious illness in infants, children and adults. The disease starts like the common cold with runny nose or congestion, sneezing and maybe mild cough or fever. But after one–two weeks, severe coughing begins. Infants and 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.

Whooping cough is most severe for babies; more than half of infants less than 1 year of age who get the disease must be hospitalized. About one in five infants with whooping cough get pneumonia (lung infection), and about one in 100 will have convulsions. In rare cases (one in 100), whooping cough can be deadly, especially in infants.

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 parents, older siblings, or other caregivers who might not even know they have the disease.

Since the 1980s, there's been an increase in the number of cases, especially among teens (10–19 years of age) and babies less than six months of age. In 2009, there were nearly 17,000 reported cases including 14 deaths nationally.

The best way to prevent whooping cough is to get vaccinated. In the U.S., the recommended whooping cough vaccine for children is called DTaP. This is a safe and effective combination vaccine that protects children against three diseases: diphtheria, tetanus, and whooping cough. For maximum protection against whooping cough, children need five DTaP shots. The first three shots are given at 2, 4, and 6 months of age. The fourth shot is given between 15 and 18 months of age, and a fifth shot is given when a child enters school, at 4–6 years of age. Parents can also help protect infants by keeping them away as much as possible from anyone who has cold symptoms or is coughing.

Vaccine protection for whooping cough, tetanus, and diphtheria can fade with time. Before 2005, the only booster vaccine available contained tetanus and diphtheria (called Td) and was recommended for adolescents and adults every ten years. Today there are boosters for adolescents and adults that contain tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (called Tdap). Pre-teens going to the doctor for their regular check-up at age 11 or 12 years should get a dose of Tdap. Adults who didn't get Tdap as a pre-teen or teen should get one dose of Tdap instead of the Td booster. Most pregnant women who were not previously vaccinated with Tdap should get one dose of Tdap postpartum before leaving the hospital or birthing center. Getting vaccinated with Tdap is especially important for families with and caregivers of new infants.

The easiest thing for adults to do is to get Tdap instead of their next regular tetanus booster—that Td shot that they were supposed to get every 10 years. The dose of Tdap can be given earlier than the 10-year mark, so it's a good idea for adults to talk to a healthcare provider about what's best for their specific situation.


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We value and respect our HERWriters' experiences, but everyone is different. Many of our writers are speaking from personal experience, and what's worked for them may not work for you. Their articles are not a substitute for medical advice, although we hope you can gain knowledge from their insight.

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