what is behind the increase in whooping cough large

What's Behind the Increase in Whooping Cough?

Cough. Cough. Cough. Cough. (sharp inhale) WHOOP (click to hear it).

If you ever wondered how whooping cough got its name, well, there it is.

Pertussis, or whooping cough, is a serious vaccine-preventable illness marked by its tell-tale rapid cough and whooping inhale. This tricky-to-diagnose illness comes on like a cold with a stuffy nose and fever, but within a few weeks presents with a severe and chronic cough that can last up to 8 weeks or longer. In infants, it can cause apnea or pauses in breath. It’s extremely dangerous to infants under age 1 as more than half end up hospitalized or with complications such as pneumonia.

Reported cases are increasing in numbers by the day, with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reporting more than 40,000 cases and 17 deaths in the U.S. in 2012.

You may wonder why these numbers are increasing if there’s a vaccine that prevents the disease. Pertussis is known to be a cyclic disease that peaks every 3 to 5 years. Here are a few of reasons why these peaks have gotten higher and how pertussis can be prevented.

  • Pertussis vaccines are very effective, but not 100 percent effective – especially in infants and young children who have not completed the entire vaccine series.
  • The immunity provided by the acellular (meaning it contains no cells) pertussis vaccine (DTaP) decreases over time. This means that it doesn’t protect as long as the whole-cell vaccine (DTP) that was used throughout the 1990s. Whole-cell vaccines are associated with higher rates of side effects such as fever and pain and swelling at the injection site, as well as rare but serious neurologic reactions. Due to these concerns, along with the availability of a safe and effective acellular vaccine, the US no longer uses whole-cell vaccines.
  • Improved diagnostic tests and better reporting contribute to the higher numbers. Given these facts there are few very important things that people can do to prevent the spread of whooping cough and decrease the risk to infants and others.


  • Vaccinate pregnant women with the adult vaccine (Tdap) during their third trimester. This helps mothers build protective antibodies that are transferred to the newborn to offer protection early in life before the child receives an initial dose at 2 months.

  • If you have an infant, make sure everyone that will be around the infant is immunized. This includes parents, siblings, grandparents, close friends, babysitters or care providers. Based on their age, they should get the DTaP (child) or Tdap (adult) vaccine at least two weeks before coming into close contact with the infant.

  • Vaccinate all children on schedule as recommended by the CDC – at 2 months, 4 months, 6 months, 15 to 18 months, and again as the child enters school between ages 4 to 6 years. Adults should get the Tdap vaccine booster at least once after childhood to prevent the illness and transmission to children.
Talk to your doctor if you’re unsure of when you received your last booster, and make sure your kids are up to date too. And if you have a new baby coming into the family, make sure all of your friends and family are protected and ready before they hold that healthy bundle of joy.

Updated January 14, 2022


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