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Whooping Cough (Pertussis) - Fact Sheet for Parents

Diseases and the Vaccines that Prevent Them

Español: Tosferina (pertussis)

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What is whooping cough?

Whooping cough—or pertussis—is a very serious respiratory (in the lungs and breathing tubes) infection caused by the pertussis bacteria. It causes violent coughing you can’t stop. Whooping cough is most harmful for young babies and can be deadly. The DTaP vaccine protects against whooping cough.

What are the symptoms of whooping cough?

Whooping cough starts with the following symptoms:

  • Runny or stuffed-up nose
  • Sneezing
  • Mild cough
  • A pause in breathing in infants (apnea)

After 1 to 2 weeks, coughing, which can be severe, starts.

  • Children and babies can cough very hard, over and over.
  • When children gasp for breath after a coughing fit, they make a "whooping" sound. This sound is where the name “whooping cough” comes from. Babies may not cough or make this sound.
  • Coughing fits make it hard to breathe, eat, drink, or sleep. Coughing fits happen more at night.
  • Babies and young children may turn blue while coughing from lack of oxygen and vomit after coughing fits.
  • Coughing fits can last for 10 weeks and sometimes recur with the next respiratory illness.

How serious is whooping cough?

The disease is most dangerous for babies and young children. From 2000 through 2012, there were 255 deaths from whooping cough reported in the U.S. Almost all of the deaths (221 of the 255) were babies younger than 3 months of age.

About half of babies younger than 1 year who get the disease need care in the hospital. About 1 out of 4 hospitalized babies with whooping cough will get pneumonia (a serious lung infection). Whooping cough can also cause seizures (jerking or staring) and brain damage.

How does whooping cough spread?

Whooping cough spreads easily through the air when an infected person breathes, coughs, or sneezes. A person can spread the disease while he or she has cold-like symptoms and for at least 2 weeks after coughing starts.

Many babies and young children get whooping cough from adults or older brothers or sisters who don’t know they have the disease. Pregnant women with whooping cough can give it to their newborn babies. Because whooping cough is so harmful in babies, everyone around them needs to be up-to-date with vaccines - to make a circle of protection.

What is the DTaP vaccine?

The DTaP vaccine is a shot that combines the vaccines for whooping cough (pertussis) and two other serious diseases: diphtheria and tetanus. The DTaP vaccine protects children by preparing their bodies to fight the bacteria.

Most children (about 89 children out of 100) who get all doses of the DTaP vaccine will be protected from whooping cough. But, protection from DTaP vaccine decreases over time. Some children who are vaccinated do get the disease, but it is usually a milder case.

Why should my child get the DTaP vaccine?

Getting your child the DTaP vaccine helps protect him against whooping cough. It also protects other people who can’t get the vaccine—especially newborn babies, who can get very sick and die from whooping cough.

When should my child get the DTaP vaccine?

Children should get five doses of the DTaP vaccine at the following ages for best protection:

  • One dose each at 2 months, 4 months, and 6 months;
  • A fourth dose at 15 through 18 months; and
  • A fifth dose at 4 through 6 years of age.

It is safe to get the DTaP vaccine at the same time as other vaccines, even for babies.

What can I do to protect my child from whooping cough (pertussis)? Keep newborns away from anyone with cold symptoms or a cough. Vaccinate your child on time. Make sure you, your child's cargivers, and older siblings get a one-time recommended dose of Tdap vacine to protect children too young to be fully vaccinated. Talk with your child's doctor if you have questions.  Keep a record of your child's vaccinations - to make sure your child is up-to-date.

If my child does not get the DTaP vaccine, will he get whooping cough?

Almost everyone who is not immune to whooping cough will get sick if exposed to it. Before the whooping cough vaccine, about 8,000 people in the U.S. died each year from the disease. Today, because of the DTaP vaccine, this number has dropped to fewer than 40.

Cases of whooping cough have been increasing over the past several years and outbreaks of whooping cough can occur. We don’t know exactly why the number of cases is increasing, but we think it’s a combination of many different reasons. Doctors and nurses are more aware of whooping cough and recognize it more often, the ways we test for the disease have gotten better, protection from vaccines decreases over time, and more of the bacteria may be circulating. 

In 2012, whooping cough made more than 48,000 people sick. 15 babies younger than 3 months died. Many of these babies were too young to be fully protected against whooping cough.

Is the DTaP vaccine safe?

The DTaP vaccine is very safe, and it is effective at preventing whooping cough (and two other diseases: diphtheria and tetanus). Vaccines are like medicines, and any medicine can have side effects. But severe side effects from the DTaP vaccine are very rare.

How can I learn more about the DTaP vaccine?

To learn more about the DTaP vaccine or other vaccines, talk to your child’s doctor.

Call 800-CDC-INFO (800-232-4636) or go to the CDC Vaccines web site and check out the following resources:


Fact Sheets for Parents
Diseases and the Vaccines that Prevent Them


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