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Pertussis, or whooping cough, is a highly contagious respiratory tract infection caused by toxins of the bacterium Bordetella pertussis. It seems like an ordinary cold in the beginning, but can eventually become more serious, particularly in infants. Whooping cough is the most contagious before the coughing starts.

Symptoms start like the common cold, with a runny nose or congestion, sneezing, and possibly a mild cough or fever. After one or two weeks, severe coughing begins. Violent and rapid coughing over and over, expels air from their lungs and forces strong inhalation that makes the loud "whooping" sound.

Whooping cough is worse for very young children who may need hospitalization or may develop pneumonia.

The best way to prevent it is through vaccinations. The childhood vaccine is called DTaP. The whooping cough booster vaccine for adolescents and adults is called Tdap. Both protect against whooping cough, tetanus and diphtheria.

Pertussis (whooping cough) infection rates rise every three to five years. Following widespread use of the pertussis vaccine for children, the incidence of pertussis decreased more than 80%. However, since the 1980s, incidence has increased, in part due to waning immunity from childhood vaccination. Adolescents and adults vaccinated in childhood can develop a milder illness, which can be overlooked and easily spread.  Infection transmitted to unvaccinated or incompletely vaccinated infants younger than 12 months can cause severe complications or death. The CDC has updated pertussis vaccination recommendations since the last peak in 2010 as follows:


DTaP is recommended for children at:

  • 2 months of age
  • 4 months of age
  • 6 months of age
  • 15-18 months of age
  • 4-6 years of age


Tdap is recommended as a single dose for:

  • Children aged 7-10 years not fully vaccinated with DTaP
  • All children 11-18 years of age
  • Unvaccinated adults 19 years of age and older including

        a. Adults 19-64 years of age

        b. Adults 65 years of age and older

        c. Pregnant women

        d. Health care workers

Tdap can be administered regardless of time from last Td booster.


This information has been approved by Christopher A Czaja, MD (February 2013).