Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.
In this Article
- Whooping cough (pertussis) facts
- What is whooping cough? What is the history of whooping cough?
- What causes whooping cough?
- What are risk factors for whooping cough?
- Can whooping cough be prevented with a vaccine?
- What are whooping cough symptoms, signs, and stages?
- How is whooping cough transmitted?
- Can adults get whooping cough?
- How is whooping cough diagnosed?
- What is the treatment for whooping cough?
- What is the prognosis for whooping cough?
- What are possible complications of whooping cough?
- Where can people find more information about whooping cough (pertussis)?
What causes whooping cough?
Whooping cough is caused by an infection with a bacterium known as Bordetella pertussis. The bacteria attach to the lining of the airways in the upper respiratory system and release toxins that lead to inflammation and swelling.
Most people acquire the bacteria by breathing in the bacteria that are present in droplets released when an infected person coughs or sneezes. The infection is very contagious is often is spread to infants by family members or caregivers, who may be in the early stages of infection and not realize that they are suffering from whooping cough.
What are risk factors for whooping cough?
Whooping cough can infect anyone. Unimmunized or incompletely immunized young infants are particularly vulnerable to the infection and its complications, which can include pneumonia and seizures. The infection occurs worldwide, even in countries with well-developed vaccination programs. As mentioned, adults may develop pertussis because the immunity from childhood vaccinations can wear off over time.
Can whooping cough be prevented with a vaccine?
Whooping cough commonly affects infants and young children but can be prevented by immunization with the pertussis vaccine. Pertussis vaccine is most commonly given in combination with the vaccines for diphtheria and tetanus. (Pertussis is the "P" in the DTaP combination inoculation routinely given to children, and the "p" in the Tdap vaccine administered to adolescents and adults.) Since immunity from the pertussis vaccine wears off with time, many teenagers and adults get whooping cough.
For maximum protection against pertussis, children need five DTaP shots. The first three vaccinations are given at 2, 4, and 6 months of age. The fourth vaccination is given between 15 and 18 months of age, and a fifth is given when a child enters school, at 4-6 years of age. Preteens going to the doctor for their regular checkup at 11 or 12 years of age should get a dose of the Tdap booster, and adults who didn't get Tdap as a preteen or teen should get one dose of Tdap. The easiest way for adults to ensure immunity is to get the Tdap vaccine instead of their next regular tetanus booster. (The Td shot is recommended every 10 years.)
The vaccine has been deemed safe for pregnant women. To protect their infants, most pregnant women who were not previously vaccinated with Tdap should get one dose of Tdap during the late second trimester or third trimester of pregnancy. The CDC recommends that women get the Tdap vaccine during each pregnancy. If not administered during pregnancy, women should get the vaccine postpartum before leaving the hospital or birthing center. Getting vaccinated with Tdap is especially important for mothers and families with new infants as well as all people caring for newborns. When a woman receives the Tdap vaccine during pregnancy, the antibodies she develops to the Bordetella pertussis bacterium are transferred to the infant, providing some additional protection to the infant before the baby can be fully vaccinated.
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