Key Facts

  • Pertussis is a highly contagious respiratory infection characterized by a "whooping cough.”
  • It can affect people of all ages, but most commonly occurs in young children, and is particularly risky for infants.
  • Infection can occur throughout the year, but in North America, its activity peaks in summer and fall.
  • Pertussis vaccines are recommended for all ages, and are proven to be the most effective prevention tool. Immunity from vaccination decreases with age so “booster” shots are recommended for teens and adults.
  • Almost all deaths and over 80% of hospitalizations associated with pertussis are in infants less than 3 months old.

How It Affects Your Body

Once the bacteria, known as Bordetella pertussis, is inhaled from an infected person coughing or sneezing, it attaches to the tiny, hair-like structures (cilia) that line the upper respiratory system and releases poisons that damage them. This, in turn, causes the airways to swell, making it hard to breathe.

As symptoms progress, complications may occur, particularly in infants, who can be subject to pneumonia, heart failure, collapsed lung, brain bleeds and even death. In older children and adults, coughing spells may result in loss of bladder control and retching and vomiting, leading to rib fracture.

Who Is at Risk?

The highest at-risk group are infants under a year who have not yet been vaccinated. Whooping cough can cause serious illness in babies with about half of infants younger than one year old needing care in a hospital when sick with pertussis. The younger the infant, the more likely they will need to be hospitalized.  But people of all ages should make sure their vaccinations stay up-to-date to avoid the infection later in life, as it can affect anyone at any time.

While anyone can get complications from pertussis, adults living with asthma are also at an increased risk of infection and complications – up to four times greater risk. People of all ages, especially those at high risk, should make sure their vaccinations stay up-to-date to protect against pertussis

Reviewed and approved by the American Lung Association Scientific and Medical Editorial Review Panel.

Page last updated: August 31, 2021

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