Pertussis, a respiratory illness commonly known as whooping cough, is a very contagious disease caused by a type of bacteria called Bordetella pertussis. This germ only infects humans, and is spread from person to person 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 7 – 10 days after being exposed, but sometimes not for as long as 6 weeks.
Pertussis (whooping cough) can cause serious illness in infants, children and adults. The disease usually starts with cold-like symptoms and maybe a mild cough or fever. After 1 to 2 weeks, severe coughing can begin. Unlike the common cold, pertussis can become a series of coughing fits that continues for weeks.
In the United States, most people complete a primary series of vaccination to pertussis by the time they are 5 years old. This is accomplished by receiving DTaP shots. This is a combination vaccine that protects against three diseases: diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis. Vaccine protection for pertussis, tetanus and diphtheria fades with time. Since 2005, a booster for pertussis has been added to tetanus shots. This is called a Tdap vaccine.
Most people get a booster for tetanus at 11-12 years old, then every 10 years thereafter. Adults who have not had a Tdap should get one. This includes pregnant women after the 20th week of pregnancy since infants are at the highest risk of complications from pertussis. Pregnant women not vaccinated during pregnancy should receive one dose of Tdap immediately postpartum before leaving the hospital or birthing center. Adults 65 years and older who have close contact with infants should get a dose of Tdap. Getting vaccinated with Tdap – at least two weeks before coming into close contact with an infant – is especially important for families with and caregivers of new infants. The dose of Tdap can be given earlier than the 10-year mark, so it is a good idea for adults to talk to a healthcare provider about what is best for their specific situation.
Pertussis vaccines are very effective in protecting you from disease but no vaccine is 100% effective. If pertussis is circulating in the community, there is a chance that a fully vaccinated person, of any age, can catch this very contagious disease. If you have been vaccinated, the infection is usually less severe.