Children's Hospital Colorado

Whooping Cough (Pertussis)

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What is whooping cough?

Whooping cough (pertussis) is a highly contagious respiratory tract infection that mostly affects infants and children. Whooping cough seems like an ordinary cold at first. In its advanced stages it causes severe coughing spells, followed by a high-pitched "whoop" sound when air is inhaled.

What are the symptoms of whooping cough?

It can take a week or more for signs to appear. Symptoms are usually mild at first. After a week or two, severe coughing attacks may occur that:

  • Bring up thick mucus
  • Cause vomiting
  • Result in a red or blue face
  • Cause extreme fatigue
  • End with a high-pitched "whoop" sound during the next breath of air

How is whooping cough spread?

It is usually spread when someone infected with pertussis coughs or sneezes while in close contact with others who then breathe in bacteria called Bordetella pertussis.

Whooping cough in infants can be quite severe and potentially fatal. Many infants who get it are infected by an older sibling, parent or caregiver who might not even know they have it. If whooping cough is circulating in the community, there is still a chance that a fully vaccinated person (of any age) can catch this very contagious disease. However, when a vaccinated person gets pertussis, the infection is usually less severe.

How do you prevent whooping cough?

Whooping cough is one of the most commonly occurring vaccine-preventable diseases in the United States. We can protect infants by continuing to vaccinate them and everyone around them.

The childhood vaccine for whooping cough is called DTaP. This vaccine is usually given to children at 2, 4, 6, and 15 to 18 months of age, with a booster at 4 to 6 years of age.

The whooping cough booster vaccine for adolescents and adults is called Tdap. Both protect against whooping cough, tetanus, and diphtheria. See the CDC's information on whooping cough vaccination.

The Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment is recommending the following vaccines:

  • DTaP (Diphtheria, Tetanus and Pertussis) vaccination of all infants at 2, 4 and 6 months
  • DTaP vaccination booster for all children at age 12-15 months
  • DTaP vaccination booster for all children at age 4-6 years
  • Tdap (Tetanus, Diphtheria and Pertussis) vaccination booster for all adolescents at age 11-12 years
  • Tdap vaccination booster for adolescents 13-18 years (who have not received a Tdap booster)
  • Tdap vaccination booster for adults less than 65 years old

In addition, people who are caring for an infant or are a member of a household with an infant should be vaccinated.

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Ricky Mohon, MD

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