You’ve probably seen a lot of talk in the news recently about the increase in pertussis (also known as whooping cough). It’s a bacterial infection that usually starts with a runny nose, fever, and cough. The cough develops into a raspy cough that sounds more like a loud bark than an actual cough. It’s a highly contagious disease.
“If you’ve ever seen a child with pertussis you won’t forget it,” says the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). “The child coughs violently and rapidly, over and over, until the air is gone from his/her lungs and he/she is forced to inhale with the loud ‘whooping’ sound that gives the disease its nickname. Then the coughing begins again.”
These severe coughing spells can go on for weeks., says the AAP. The child might turn blue from lack of air, or vomit after a coughing spell. A child with pertussis can have difficulty eating, drinking, or even breathing. Most commonly, pertussis affects children. Infants with pertussis are often hospitalized to assist their breathing.
Young infants are at the highest risk for pertussis-related complications, including pneumonia, seizures, brain swelling, and even death, according to experts at Brenner Children’s Hospital, which is a part of Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. In the U.S., the incidence of pertussis peaks at 1 month of age and progressively decreases over the next year. Pneumonia is the most common cause of infant pertussis-related deaths. Most deaths occur among unvaccinated children or infants too young to be vaccinated.
There are two types of pertussis vaccines: DTaP for infants and children and Tdap for adolescents and adults. Getting vaccinated with Tdap is especially important for family members with, and caregivers of, new infants. (Also, if caring for an infant, keep him or her away from anyone with cough or cold symptoms.)
Since pertussis is common in winter, keep your baby healthy by following the CDC’s recommended vaccination schedule:
• Infants and children are recommended to receive 5 doses of the DTaP vaccine at 2, 4, and 6 months, at 15 through 18 months and, at 4 through 6 years. All 5 doses are needed for maximum protection.
• Adolescents are recommended to receive the Tdap vaccine at their regular checkup at age 11 or 12. If teenagers (13 through 18 years) missed getting the Tdap vaccine, parents should ask the doctor about getting it for them now.
• Adults who are ages 19 to 64 are recommended to get a one-time dose of Tdap in place of the Td booster they’re recommended to receive every 10 years. No need to wait until you are due for your Td booster. The dose of Tdap can be given earlier than the 10-year mark since the last Td booster. It’s a good idea for adults to talk to their healthcare provider about what’s best for their specific situation.
• Pregnant women should, ideally, receive Tdap before pregnancy. Otherwise, it is recommended that Tdap be given after delivery, before leaving the hospital or birthing center. If a pregnant woman is at increased risk for getting pertussis, such as during a community outbreak, her doctor may consider giving Tdap during pregnancy. Although pregnancy is not a contraindication for receiving Tdap, a pregnant woman and her doctor should discuss the risks and benefits before choosing to receive Tdap during pregnancy.
• People 65 years and older do not currently have a whooping cough booster vaccine licensed for their age group. However, people in this age group can talk to their healthcare provider to see if getting Tdap is a good decision for them. This discussion can include weighing the risks and benefits of receiving Tdap. Receiving Tdap may be especially important during a community outbreak and/or if the person is caring for an infant.