Whooping Cough: Vaccinating Can Prevent Deadly Childhood Infection

 November 8, 2018

The bottom line: Pertussis (whooping cough) is a very contagious respiratory disease. The bacterial infection may be severe and deadly, especially for babies and small children. Violent coughing spells leave patients gasping for breath, resulting in the “whoop” sound. Vaccination is the best way to prevent whooping cough among infants, children, teens, and adults.

The sound of pertussis, or whooping cough, is terrifying. It is the sound of someone coughing violently, and then gasping for air; the gasp is the “whoop” sound. Whooping cough is a highly contagious, potentially fatal respiratory disease, and a big problem in Texas. In 2013, 3,985 cases were reported in Texas, the highest annual case count since 1959. Five infants died from pertussis-related symptoms that year. Infants who are too young to be vaccinated are particularly susceptible to this deadly disease. Whooping cough is one of several vaccine-preventable diseases that has made a resurgence. The Texas Medical Association’s (TMA’s) Texas Medicine magazine reports physicians are urging patients, especially mothers and close family members, to vaccinate to protect young infants from the life-threatening whooping cough infection.

 “The best way to protect young babies from whooping cough is for their mothers to get a booster vaccine called Tdap during pregnancy,” said C. Mary Healy, MD, who chairs TMA’s Committee on Infectious Diseases. She said adults, especially pregnant women and family members, should vaccinate to protect themselves from getting whooping cough and passing it on to their newborns who are too young for the shot. The shot gives protection against tetanus, diphtheria, and acellular pertussis.

The signature relentless cough is haunting (click to hear the sound in a video). “Now in anyone, that is unpleasant and exhausting, but in young babies, it can be very serious,” she said, “causing them to stop breathing, to turn blue, causing pneumonia, seizures, or even death.”

In addition to mothers getting the Tdap vaccine during pregnancy, a vaccination “cocoon” strategy has been recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention since 2006, to prevent spreading the disease to a defenseless child. The cocoon strategy is simple: Until the baby is old enough for the vaccination, only people who have been vaccinated against the disease should be near the baby. That means ensuring everyone in the family has received the whooping cough vaccine recommended for their age group, including the Tdap booster vaccine if they are over age 11.  

For the expectant mother, the shot’s protection is two-fold: She is less likely to catch and pass whooping cough to her baby, and the baby gets protection from the disease until he or she can begin to get vaccinated. Because babies require a series of pertussis vaccinations once they’re old enough, they are not fully protected until they’re close to 18 months of age.

The cocoon strategy includes any family members and others (aged 11 to 66 years) who come in contact with newborns. Parents, siblings, grandparents, childcare providers, and health care workers all are urged to get the shot. Pertussis symptoms in adults can be mild, so a close relative or caregiver might unknowingly spread pertussis to the baby.   

 “Pertussis or whooping cough causes severe coughing fits that can last for 100 days,” said Dr. Healy, “Of course, everyone needs to be up to date on their whooping cough vaccines.”

This release is part of a monthly TMA series highlighting contagious diseases that childhood and adult vaccinations can prevent. Diseases covered thus far are:  

TMA designed the series to inform patients of the facts about these diseases and to help them understand the benefits of vaccinations to prevent illness. Visit the TMA website to see efforts to raise immunization awareness and how funding is used to increase vaccination rates.

TMA is the largest state medical society in the nation, representing more than 51,000 physician and medical student members. It is located in Austin and has 110 component county medical societies around the state. TMA’s key objective since 1853 is to improve the health of all Texans. 

Be Wise — ImmunizeSM is a joint initiative led by TMA physicians and medical students, and the TMA Alliance. It is funded in 2018 by the TMA Foundation thanks to H-E-B, TMF Health Quality Institute, Pfizer Inc., and gifts from physicians and their families. 

Be Wise — Immunize is a service mark of the Texas Medical Association. 


TMA Contacts:  Brent Annear (512) 370-1381; cell: (512) 656-7320; email: brent.annear@texmed.org

Marcus Cooper (512) 370-1382; cell: (512) 650-5336; email: marcus.cooper@texmed.org 

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Check out MeAndMyDoctor.com for interesting and timely news on health care issues and policy. 

Last Updated On

February 14, 2020