Whooping Cough is Deadly for Babies

Small premature baby lies in an incubator a grown hand reaches in grasping the foot in caring manner

Whooping cough is a very contagious disease that can be deadly for babies. The bacteria that cause whooping cough spread from person to person, usually by coughing or sneezing while in close contact with others.

Babies are at risk for getting whooping cough

People used to think of whooping cough as a disease of the past, but it’s still common in the United States. Since the late 1980s through the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, there was an increase in the number of reported cases of whooping cough. 2012 was a record year with more than 48,000 cases, the most cases that CDC has seen in the past 60 years.

Most of the deaths each year are in babies younger than 3 months old. Between 2010 and 2020, up to 20 babies died from it each year in the United States.

Even though it seems like these are a lot of cases, the United States no longer has the 200,000 cases per year like it did before whooping cough vaccines were available.

Even healthy babies get whooping cough

In the first 6 months of life, babies are at high risk for complications from whooping cough, even if they are healthy. This is because their immune systems are still developing. In fact, babies younger than 2 months old only have the antibodies they get from their mother to help protect them.

It is important for women to get Tdap during each pregnancy. This allows them to transfer the greatest number of protective antibodies to each of their babies.

Whooping cough can be serious for babies

Whooping cough can cause serious and sometimes life-threatening complications in babies. This is especially true within the first 6 months of life. It is important to know that some babies with whooping cough don’t cough at all. Instead, it causes them to stop breathing and turn blue.

About half of babies who get whooping cough end up in the hospital. The younger the baby is when they get whooping cough, the more likely it is that doctors will need to treat them in the hospital. Of those babies who get treatment for whooping cough in a hospital, about 1 out of 5 will get pneumonia (lung infection) and 1 out of 100 will die. Other complications include violent, uncontrolled shaking, apnea (life-threatening pauses in breathing), and encephalopathy (brain disease).

View photos of a baby being treated for whooping cough. WARNING, these photos may be upsetting for some people to see.

Whooping cough can be serious for pregnant women and others in the family too

Adolescents and adults can also have complications from whooping cough. They are usually less serious in these age groups, especially in those who got whooping cough vaccines. The cough itself often causes common complications in adolescents and adults, including loss of bladder control, fainting, and rib fractures.

Antibiotics are used to treat whooping cough

Doctors generally treat whooping cough with antibiotics. Learn why early treatment is so important and get tips for caring for your baby.

A doctor or local health department may recommend preventive antibiotics to close contacts of a whooping cough patient, including all household members. This might prevent or reduce the chance of getting whooping cough.