Whooping Cough (Pertussis): What Every Parent Should Know

Whooping cough (pertussis) is a serious (but preventable) disease that can be fatal for babies – in 2010 ten infants died from it in the state of California. There are periodic breakouts, such as the current one in Washington state, in which 1,484 cases have been reported through May 12 as compared to 134 cases during the same time period in 2011 (click here for the details from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). Given this recent outbreak, I thought it would be useful to share current information on whooping cough and advice on how to try to prevent it. 

To this end, I sought out the perspective of Dr. Wendy Sue Swanson. Dr. Swanson sees patients at The Everett Clinic in Mill Creek, Washington and is on the medical staff at Seattle Children’s. Dr. Swanson is also a Clinical Instructor in the Department of Pediatrics at the University of Washington. In addition, she writes the Seattle Mama Doc blog, which I turn to frequently (as a professional and parent) for concise and up-to-date information and guidance on many pediatric issues. Dr. Swanson was kind enough to answer a number of questions I posed to her about whooping cough which I am pleased to share here.

1) What is whooping cough?

Whooping cough (also known as pertussis) is a highly contagious respiratory illness that can spread from one person to another with a single cough or sneeze. In older children and adults, it starts as a typical cold but can advance to a more prolonged/protracted cough that is serious, uncomfortable and disruptive. The cough can get so bad that it makes it difficult to eat, drink or even breath. Sometimes the cough causes a characteristic “whoop” and often it causes vomiting. But most dangerous is whooping cough in infants. In infants it can cause feeding delays, severe respiratory distress, pauses in their breathing and/or death. Infants under 6 months of age are at high risk, and those under 2 months of age are at severe risk for complications.

2) How is it spread?

Via coughing, sneezing, or other ways in which droplets spread from one to another.

3) Are children of all ages vulnerable? 

Although infants are most vulnerable – particularly those under 2 months of age – all children are at higher risk. In Washington state during our epidemic, 80% of positive tests were in children under 18 years of age. That is primarily because it is more distressing to children and they are the ones who get treated. Most data supports the notion that during epidemics, only aboute 10% of those with whooping cough get tested.

4) Why do we see surges in it?

Whooping cough tends to cycle every 3-5 years with surges. Part of that has to do with immunity and the herd. Part of those surges have to do with the fact that we never develop lifelong immunity. After a whooping cough infection, our immunity to whooping cough wanes somewhere between 4-20 years and after the immunization it wanes somewhere between 4-12 years later. That is why it is recommended that all children over age 11 get a Tdap shot NOW. We also immunize infants with DTaP at 2,4, 6, 15 months and 4 years of age. It’s essential that pregnant women get the Tdap in their 3rd trimester (after 20 weeks gestation). All adults who will be around newborns should also get the Tdap. We know that newborns are most vulnerable to the serious complications from whooping cough so if we “cocoon” them with family and friends who are immunized we reduce the likelihood that they get an infection.

5) What symptoms should parents look for? What should they do when they observe these symptoms in their kids?

In infants, if your newborn or infant has a cold, difficulty feeding, vomiting with cough or coughing fits, see the pediatrician. In older children, if they have been exposed to whooping cough and present with a cold, or have a cough that lingers past 2 weeks, cough with vomiting, or a “whoop” sound, see the doctor immediately.

6) What should parents do to protect their kids and help prevent it?

The best way to protect against whooping cough is to get immunized (as detailed above). After you get immunized, ask that your family, your children’s daycare and school teachers, and all adults that come into your home get immunized, too. Grandparents of any age are recommended to get the Tdap shot, too!

If you would like to learn more, here are additional blog posts that Dr. Swanson has written on whooping cough:

Post on how to protect newborns:


What is the Tdap shot? (YouTube video and post w/list of resources):


All Grandparents need a Tdap shot:


Woman sneezing via Shutterstock.com

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  1. by Joe

    On May 17, 2012 at 3:40 pm

    Wow, this reads like a vaccine advertisement.

    Or, instead of falling for fear tactics like this, people could fully inform themselves on Pertussis. Most of the kids in Washington were fully vaccinated.

    For example:

  2. by RR

    On May 17, 2012 at 9:53 pm

    Well, the idea is that vaccines provide broad protection against the disease – meaning that kids who are vaccinated are less likely to suffer serious consequences if in fact exposure does happen. That’s a very real benefit of vaccinations, especially in highly vulnerable populations such as infants, where one of the outcomes can be death. And hopefully that protection was in place for the kids in WA who were vaccinated and contracted whooping cough.

  3. by Kat

    On May 19, 2012 at 2:32 pm

    What they leave out of this article is that in all the outbreaks, 80- 90% of those who come down with whooping cough are fully vaccinated. Meaning, the pertussis vaccine isn’t working.

  4. by Laura

    On May 19, 2012 at 3:19 pm

    For those of you saying the vaccine doesn’t work, get the facts straight. Vaccines aren’t made to 100% guarantee that you will NOT get whatever you are being vaccinated for, it’s meant to reduce the likelihood of getting said illness. IF by chance you DO get said illness, the severity of it will be lessened exponentially. Think of before these vaccines came out and how many of those kids who got whooping cough DIED from the illness. Vaccines aren’t a be all end all, they are there to protect and lessen the severity/complications of illnesses. My kids have all been vaccinated, my oldest DID contract “whooping cough” but the others did not. Also the length and severity of her illness was greatly lessened due to the fact she had been vaccinated. Also, some kids have an underlying immune problem that parents may not even realize is there, but it can affect the way your body builds immunities when given vaccines. Sometimes they just don’t take, it’s not an exact science no matter how much we want it to be. I am ecstatic that my daughter was able to get thru “whooping cough” with no hospitalization needed and no fearing for her life.

  5. by Ashley

    On May 19, 2012 at 8:14 pm

    I would NEVER get a vaccine while pregnant as no vaccine is tested for safety in the pregnant population. What if you’re that percentage of people who suffers a MAJOR reaction and something happens to you or your baby? Plus, read the package insert as it tells you that the vaccine does not protect you from whooping cough,but rather lessen the symptoms which in my opinion can be even more dangerous. You might have whooping cough but it may only come across as a cold so you can be spreading it without even knowing it! PLEASE do your research people!

  6. [...] normal couples are also making sure Grandma is up to date on her diphtheria, influenza and pertussis shots before she can hold the baby, reports CBS’ New York affiliate. And this is music to [...]