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Whooping Cough (Pertussis)

Whooping cough is a serious illness caused by Bordetella pertussis bacteria. You might also hear whooping cough called “pertussis.” 

When this germ gets into the lungs or breathing tubes, it can cause infection. People with this illness cough a lot. Between coughs, they make a “whoop” sound as they gasp for air. 

How whooping cough spreads 

Whooping cough spreads easily from person to person through the air. The germs live in the mouth and nose of an infected person. Their cough or sneeze can spread the germs to other people. 

Dangers of whooping cough 

A person with whooping cough might have coughs hard enough to cause vomiting, broken ribs, or rupture blood vessels in the eye. The cough can last for weeks or months. The illness can be deadly. 

Whooping cough is most dangerous for babies. More than half of babies younger than 1 with whooping cough need to go to the hospital. Babies can die from whooping cough. Or, they can have serious health problems such as seizures or brain damage. 

baby crying

Whooping cough is dangerous for babies. They should go to the hospital immediately.

Anyone can become sick from whooping cough. In recent years, more infants have had whooping cough because fewer adults have resistance to the disease. 

How to prevent whooping cough 

You can protect yourself and others by getting the Tdap vaccine

  • All babies, children, and teens should get this vaccine as part of their routine checkups. 
  • People 19 and older who did not get the Tdap vaccine as a preteen or teen should receive a single dose of Tdap. 
  • Pregnant women should receive a dose of Tdap during pregnancy, usually at 27–36 weeks. The vaccine’s protection passes on to the baby. 

The Tdap vaccine protects against 3 diseases: tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis. Adults can get a Tdap booster every 10 years.  

  • Diphtheria, like whooping cough, spreads through person-to-person contact. Diphtheria is rare in the U.S. because of broad vaccination against the disease.  
  • Tetanus is caused by a germ called Clostridium tetani that gets into a wound and releases a toxin that affects the brain and nervous system. It causes muscle stiffness and can be deadly. 

To learn more 

If you have questions about whooping cough or the Tdap vaccine, talk to your child's doctor or nurse. 

Key Points

  • Whooping cough is caused by the Bordetella pertussis bacteria.  
  • Whooping cough is also called pertussis. 
  • People with this illness cough a lot. Between coughs, they make a “whoop” sound as they gasp for air. 
  • The best way to prevent whooping cough is to get the Tdap vaccine. 

Reviewed: August 2022