The best way to prevent pertussis (whooping cough) among infants, children, teens, and adults is to get vaccinated. Also, keep infants and other people at high risk for whooping cough complications away from infected people.

There are vaccines for children, pre-teens, teens, and adults. The childhood vaccine is called DTaP, and the pertussis booster vaccine for adolescents and adults is called Tdap. These are combination vaccines that protect against three diseases: diphtheriatetanus and pertussis.

Getting vaccinated against pertussis is especially important for families with and caregivers of new infants.

Note: Upper-case letters in these vaccine abbreviations denote full-strength doses of diphtheria (D) and tetanus (T) toxoids and pertussis (P) vaccine. Lower-case “d” and “p” denote reduced doses of diphtheria and pertussis used in the adolescent/adult-formulations. The “a” in DTaP and Tdap stands for “acellular”, meaning that the pertussis component contains only a part of the pertussis organism.


What is Pertussis (Whooping Cough)?

Pertussis, a respiratory illness commonly known as whooping cough, is a very contagious disease caused by a type of bacteria called Bordetella pertussis. Pertussis is found only in humans and is spread from person to person. People with pertussis usually spread the disease by coughing or sneezing while in close contact with others, who then breathe in the pertussis bacteria.

Many infants who get pertussis are infected by older siblings, parents or caregivers who might not even know they have the disease. Symptoms of pertussis usually develop within seven to ten days after being exposed, but sometimes not for as long as six weeks.

Pertussis causes severe coughing spells, vomiting, and disturbed sleep. It can lead to weight loss, incontinence, rib fractures and passing out from violent coughing. Although you are often exhausted after a coughing fit, you usually appear fairly well in-between. Coughing fits generally become more common and severe as the illness continues, and can occur more often at night. The illness can be milder (less severe) and the typical “whoop” absent in children, teens, and adults who have been vaccinated.


Who gets Pertussis (Whooping Cough)?

Everyone is at risk for pertussis, but it is most severe for babies; more than half of infants younger than one year of age who get the disease are hospitalized. Of infants who are hospitalized with pertussis, one in four get pneumonia (lung infection), one or two in a hundred will have convulsions, and one or two in a hundred will die.

Up to five in 100 adolescents and adults with pertussis are hospitalized. Of those patients, up to two in 100are diagnosed with pneumonia.The most common complications in a study of adults with pertussis were:

  • Weight loss (33%)
  • Loss of bladder control (28%)
  • Passing out (6%)
  • Rib fractures from severe coughing (4%)

Getting vaccinated with DTaP or Tdap (depending on your age) is especially important for pregnant women and anyone who is around infants.

Remember that even fully-vaccinated children and adults can get pertussis. If you are caring for infants, check with your healthcare provider about what’s best for your situation.


Early symptoms can last for one to two weeks and usually include:

  • Runny nose
  • Low-grade fever (generally minimal throughout the course of the disease)
  • Mild, occasional cough
  • Apnea – a pause in breathing (in infants)

As the disease progresses, the traditional symptoms of pertussis may appear and include:

  • Fits (paroxysms) of many, rapid coughs followed by a high-pitched “whoop”
  • Vomiting (throwing up)
  • Exhaustion (very tired) after coughing fits

The coughing fits can go on for up to ten weeks or more.




  • Children should get five doses of diphtheria and tetanus toxoids and acellular pertussis(DTaP) vaccine, one dose at each of the following ages:
    • 2 months
    • 4 months
    • 6 months
    • 15 through 18 months
    • 4 through 6 years
  • DTaP vaccine may be given at the same visit as other vaccines.
  • DTaP is not licensed for anyone over the age of six. Children older than six, adolescents, and adults may get a similar vaccine, Tdap.
  • DTaP replaced an older version of the vaccine, called DTP.



  • Tdapis a tetanus-diphtheria-pertussis vaccine given to adolescents and adults as a one-time shot, or after exposure to tetanus under some circumstances. This is in place of one of the Td shots you would get every ten years.
  • Adolescents 11 through 18 years of age (preferably at age 11-12 years) and adults 19 or older – who did not receive Tdap in adolescence – should receive a single dose of Tdap. Tdap is especially important for those in close contact with infants.
  • Tdap should also be given to 7 through 10 year olds who are not fully immunized against pertussis.
  • Pregnant women should receive a dose of Tdap duringeach pregnancy, preferably at 27 through 36 weeks to maximize that amount of protective antibodies passed to the baby, but the vaccine can be safely given at any time during pregnancy.
  • Tdap can be given no matter when Td (tetanus-diphtheria vaccine) was last received.