Before a vaccine was introduced in the late 1940s, pertussis, more commonly known as whooping cough, was a leading cause of childhood illness and death in the United States. The vaccine was so effective that the number of cases in the U.S. went from more than a million diagnosed between 1940-1945, to less than 3,000 a year by the mid-1980s.
Over the past 25 years, however, pertussis has again become increasingly common due to incomplete vaccine coverage and people choosing not to get vaccinated at all. In recent years several states have reported significant outbreaks, with more than 100 deaths since 2010.
To help protect yourself and your family from pertussis, here’s what you should know.
1. Whooping cough most commonly occurs in children but can affect anyone at any age.
While young children and teenagers are among the most affected, adults are also at risk of contracting and spreading whooping cough.
Pregnant women can provide short-term protection for their babies by getting the Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis) booster during pregnancy, but children need to build their own immunity after birth. For best protection against whooping cough, children need five doses of the DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus, and acellular pertussis) vaccination. The CDC recommends the baby’s first dose beginning at 2 months old.
The best way to protect yourself is by getting vaccinated. This is especially necessary those who come into contact with babies less than 12 months old. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), about half of babies one year old and younger who contract whooping cough end up hospitalized. Young children are also at risk of other complications, such as pneumonia, dehydration and heart failure.
It’s also important to know adults are at risk even if they were vaccinated as children. A primary reason for the resurgence of the illness is the one-two punch of a weakening of immunity in adults as they have aged, combined with a growing population of unvaccinated children. It is recommended that all adults ages 19-65 should receive a single "booster" vaccination, as well as adults aged 65 years and older who have not previously received a Tdap shot.
2. Pertussis is known for the distinct "whooping" sound made at the end of a coughing episode, giving it the name.
Although pertussis usually starts with typical cold-like symptoms, it is often not diagnosed until after one to two weeks, when the illness progresses from a mild cough into the second stage of persistent and rapid coughing spells. This stage is known as the paroxysmal stage.
The paroxysmal stage is categorized by violent coughing spasms that often result in vomiting and is followed by a whooping sound. These coughing episodes may occur a few times a day up to several times an hour and are often worse at night and can interfere with sleep. This stage can last up to three months.
3. The use of cough medications is not recommended in the treatment of whooping cough.
Regardless of over-the-counter cough suppressants or therapy, symptoms of whooping cough will gradually resolve after three to six months.
Antibiotics are the best way to treat pertussis. It is important that a doctor is seen as soon as possible, and treatment is started early to reduce severity and duration of the illness, as well as reduce the risk of spreading the infection to others.
Treatment after three weeks is unlikely to help because the bacteria are typically gone from your body despite still having symptoms. Coughing fits often persist for weeks because the bacteria have already caused damage.
4. Even vaccinated people may still be carriers.
Pertussis is an extremely contagious respiratory infection that can easily spread from a cough or sneeze. Unfortunately, many people who spread it may not show symptoms or even know they have it. Getting a vaccination can help protect you from contracting the illness, but it can still be spread by those who are immune to it.
Not getting vaccinated or living in the same house with an infected person are two major risk factors for infection. People in the same household who have not had their DTaP or Tdap are 80 to 100 percent likely to be infected with exposure, while those who have been immunized are only 20 percent likely to be infected.
5. There are several steps you can take for managing pertussis and reducing the risk of spreading it to others.
To start, see your doctor as soon as symptoms begin to occur and always follow the schedule for taking antibiotics exactly as prescribed. Try your best to keep your home free of any irritants that can trigger coughing, such as smoke, dust and chemical fumes. Use a clean, cool mist vaporizer to help loosen secretions and soothe the cough and practice proper handwashing. Drink plenty of fluids, including water, juices and soups, and eat fruits to prevent dehydration.
Although infection can occur throughout the year, be particularly cautious during the summer and fall months when pertussis cases tend to peak.
Those who have had an outbreak in their community should be especially vigilant about early symptoms. If you or someone in your household might have whooping cough, your best course of action is to see your doctor as soon as possible.
Blog last updated: November 17, 2022