Moms Columns & Blogs

What is the Whooping Cough?

I have heard that someone at my daughter’s school has whooping cough.  What is the whooping cough?  How would I know if my child has it?  What can be done to prevent it?


The “whooping cough” is a respiratory infection caused by the bacteria Bordetella pertussis.  When a person becomes infected with pertussis, he or she will experience two phases of illness.  The first phase of the illness has symptoms that are indistinguishable from a common cold: runny nose, sneezing, mild cough, and low grade fever.  Then after 1-2 weeks, the dry irritating cough evolves into cough spells.  This is the second phase.  During the coughing spells, infants may turn red or stop breathing.  The illness gets its name from a “whooping” sound that is sometimes heard at the end of a coughing spell.


Pertussis is highly contagious and spreads from person to person.  Prior to the vaccine, 5 to 10 thousand people died in the United States per year.  Pertussis is now responsible for approximately 30 deaths per year in the U.S.  In 2004, there was a spike in the incidence of pertussis.  There were 25,000 cases of pertussis that year in the United States- the highest incidence since the 1950’s. 


The best way to protect against pertussis is vaccination.  Infants receive their primary series of vaccinations against pertussis at 2, 4, and 6 months.  Infants who are less than 6 months of age are at the highest risk for being hospitalized with pertussis.  Children between the ages of 11-18 years are also at increased risk of pertussis because their immunity has faded against the disease.  In this age group, the children typically have milder symptoms, but they can spread the disease to infants who come into contact with them.  For these reasons, it is recommended (and required by CMS schools) that children receive a booster vaccine (TdaP) at 11 years of age.