Also known as whooping cough, pertussis is a highly contagious vaccine-preventable disease that can cause coughing spells that may last for many weeks or even months. It is also the most common vaccine-preventable disease in the U.S. In children, pertussis is identified by the “whooping” sound that they make as they desperately try to catch their breath between coughs. It is caused by bacteria that spread easily from person to person through personal contact, coughing, and sneezing. Pertussis can be very serious for babies and can even cause them to stop breathing. Hundreds of infants are hospitalized each year for whooping cough, and some die from it. Ninety-percent of pertussis-associated deaths have been among infants less than one year old.
Many infants who get pertussis catch it from their parents or older brothers and sisters — who might not even know they have the disease. In adolescents and adults, the disease often appears to be just a bad cold with symptoms such as a prolonged cough with no “whooping” sounds. In fact, scientists have found that when a source was identified, in up to 80% of infant pertussis cases, babies caught the disease from a family member, primarily a parent.
To protect against this disease, children should receive all five doses of DTaP (the child pertussis vaccine) at ages 2 months, 4 months, 6 months, 15-18 months and 4-6 years. Preteens going to the doctor for their regular check-up at age 11 or 12 years should get a booster vaccine, called Tdap. During a pertussis outbreak, children who have received all of their pertussis vaccinations are six times less likely to become infected than those who have never been vaccinated.
Women should be vaccinated with Tdap (the adult pertussis vaccine) during each pregnancy regardless of their prior Tdap vaccination history. Tdap vaccine is very safe in all trimesters and can be given at any time during pregnancy, but preferably during the last three months of pregnancy. If the vaccine is received during pregnancy, maternal antibodies will transfer to the newborn, and provide the baby with protection against pertussis. Tdap will also protect the mother at time of delivery, keeping her healthier and making her less likely to transmit pertussis to her infant. If not vaccinated during pregnancy, new mothers should receive the Tdap vaccine postpartum before leaving the hospital or birthing center. In addition, all family members and caregivers of new infants (over 11 years old) should also get vaccinated with Tdap. Ideally, these people should receive the vaccine at least 2 weeks before beginning close contact with the infant. The strategy of protecting infants from disease by vaccinating pregnant women and vaccinating those people who will be around the new baby is called "cocooning."
To read personal stories from families affected by pertussis and other vaccine-preventable diseases, please visit the Victims of Vaccine-Preventable Diseases page. To view a collection of videos from people who have been touched by vaccine-preventable diseases, visit ShotbyShot.org.
For more information about pertussis symptoms and vaccination, please see the list of recommended resources below.
- When to Seek Help for a Cough
- Send an eCard about Pertussis Vaccination
- Download Pertussis Posters from ECBT
- Pertussis: Protect Your Loved Ones (Fact Sheet)
- CDC Pertussis Webpage (information available in English and Espanol)
- ACIP Vaccine Recommendations for Tdap/Td
- Where Can I Get Vaccinated with Tdap?
- Immunization Information for OB-GYNs and Their Patients