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Why The Whooping Cough Vaccine Is Important

Posted on July 3, 2024 by Henry Ford Health Staff
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Getting vaccinated against whooping cough (also called pertussis) is typically part of the recommended course of infant and early childhood vaccines. And with good reason. 

“Pertussis is highly contagious and the disease can be very serious—even life-threatening—for babies,” says Yolaine Civil, M.D., a pediatrician at Henry Ford Health. 

But infants aren’t the only ones who need a strong defense against whooping cough. Here’s how to protect your whole family.

What Is Whooping Cough?

Whooping cough is an upper respiratory disease caused by bacteria that can invade your respiratory system. Once there, the infection leads to swelling in the airways. 

At first, most people with whooping cough appear to have nothing more serious than a common cold. Early symptoms—stuffy or runny nose, low-grade fever and slight cough—are very similar. 

But a week (or even two) after symptoms first develop, whooping cough can turn more serious. “In the second phase, a thick mucus forms in the lungs and airways, making it harder to breathe,” says Dr. Civil. “That’s also when people start having violent coughing fits, leading to a high-pitched ‘whoop’ sound when you try to catch your breath.” 

The coughing fits can cause vomiting and leave you very fatigued and short of breath. Babies with whooping cough don’t typically cough at all, but they do struggle to breathe. They often even stop breathing and turn blue—requiring emergency medical attention.

Who’s Most At Risk From Whooping Cough?

As with many infectious diseases, babies, young children and elderly adults are the most vulnerable to serious illness from whooping cough. Not-yet-vaccinated newborns and babies who haven’t completed a full course of whooping cough vaccine are most likely to catch the disease if exposed. They’re also at the highest risk of becoming severely sick from it. 

Infants six months or younger have the highest chance of hospitalization—and even death—from whooping cough. Up to 50% of babies with whooping cough end up in the hospital. 

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Older adults or anyone with a compromised immune system can also experience serious symptoms if they get whooping cough. In younger, healthier (or fully vaccinated) people, pertussis is typically very mild. Symptoms feel more like a cold, and the cough is less severe and doesn’t linger as long.

When To Get Whooping Cough Vaccine (And Boosters)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends everyone be vaccinated against whooping cough. And it’s not just a one-shot deal. “Pertussis immunity can wane after a few years, and even those who are fully vaccinated can still get the illness—but it will likely be very mild,” says Dr. Civil. That’s why it’s so important to stay on top the whooping cough vaccine or booster schedule for yourself, your children and other loved ones.

The pertussis vaccine comes together with vaccines for tetanus and diphtheria. For babies it’s called DTaP and for older children and adults it’s a variation called Tdap. “It’s a very safe vaccine that typically has only mild side effects,” says Dr. Civil. Those side effects can include low-grade fever, fatigue, redness or soreness at the injection site,” says Dr. Civil. If you have concerns about vaccination for yourself or your children, talk to your doctor. 

Whooping cough vaccine is an important part of early childhood vaccinations. The CDC recommends the following schedule for babies and children:

  • First dose at 2 months
  • Repeat doses at 4 months, 6 months, between 15-18 months and between 4-6 years old
  • Booster vaccination (Tdap) between 11 and 12 years 

Adults should continue receiving Tdap boosters every 10 years to maintain protection. Pregnant people should receive a booster during their third trimester—regardless of when they last got vaccinated. This helps protect their baby during the first few months after birth. 

Regardless of vaccination status, it’s important to take steps to help prevent spreading respiratory illnesses like whooping cough. The infection spreads through respiratory droplets emitted when a sick person coughs or sneezes. Frequent handwashing and covering up coughs and sneezes can help keep your family healthy. 


Reviewed by Yolaine Civil, M.D., a pediatrician who sees patients at Henry Ford Medical Center - New Center One.

Categories : ParentWell
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