-- Second opinion: Pertussis - Whooping Cough - is your immunization current? --
Lauren Langford, MD
In 1914, my father's sister died of whooping cough. My grandmother placed her clothes in a little box in the drawer that we were never supposed to touch. When I was growing up, my parents saw to it that we all received our immunizations.
We talked a lot about whooping cough or pertussis. The scientific name is Pertussis because the disease is named after the bacteria that causes it, Bordetella pertussis. At home, we called it whooping cough because of the dreaded sound of the cough (http://www.soundsofpertussis.com).
Unfortunately whooping cough is on the rise today. In 2010, 27,550 cases of pertussis were reported in the US, and many more cases go unreported because of unfamiliarity with the disease and its symptoms. Whooping cough is highly contagious and leaves the victim literally gasping for air.
The disease starts like the common cold, with runny nose or congestion, sneezing, and maybe mild cough or fever. But after one to two weeks, severe coughing can begin. Unlike the common cold, pertussis can become a series of coughing fits that continue for weeks. Pertussis can cause violent and rapid coughing, over and over, until the air is gone from the lungs and you are forced to inhale with a loud "whooping" sound. In infants, the cough can be minimal or nonexistent.
Pertussis is generally treated with antibiotics and early treatment is very important. Treatment may make the infection less severe if it is started early - before coughing fits begin. Treatment can also help prevent spreading the disease to close contacts.
Prevention is by immunization. DTaP immunization is a combination vaccine that protects against three bacterial illnesses, Diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis or whooping cough. DTaP is one of the vaccinations that all children should receive.
DTaP vaccine can be safely given to infants. Five DTaP vaccines are recommended. They are usually given to children at ages two months, four months, six months, 15-18 months, and four to six years.
Tdap is recommended as a booster to the DTaP vaccine in people ages 11 to 64 years. Tdap vaccine should be given around age 11 or 12, and every 10 years thereafter. Because the effect of immunization only lasts a few years, adolescents and adults may become vulnerable five to 10 years after immunization. Adults contract the disease and pass it to their children. In 30-40 percent of infant infections, mothers are the source of infection.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that adults and adolescents, especially those in close contact with an infant, receive a single dose of Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, and acellular pertussis) vaccine. More information is available at
During a pertussis outbreak, unimmunized children under age seven should not attend school or public gatherings, and should be isolated from anyone known or suspected to be infected. This should last until 14 days after the last reported case.
Ask your doctor if you need to be immunized against whooping cough.