Pertussis: A known villain. Are you protected?

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Toddler coughing

By Kara Stephens

Current Status: Public Health Nemesis

If you’ve been reading the news the past few weeks, you may have heard about the recent outbreak of pertussis that has reached epidemic levels in Washington.  There have been 2,092 cases reported statewide through June 5, 2012, compared to 164 reported cases in 2011 during the same time period.  Other states are also reporting increased levels or outbreaks of pertussis. Outbreaks reported in schools and communities as well as the beginning of summer camp season highlight the importance of public awareness.  View the Pertussis Disease Villain’s rap sheet below to find out more about this public health nemesis. 

Real name: Pertussis
Known aliases: Bordetella pertussis (the bacteria that causes pertussis illness); whooping cough (for the “whoop” sound of someone gasping for air after a coughing spell).
Microbe type: Bacterium

cartoon villainProfile

Pertussis, also known as whooping cough, is a respiratory disease that can be fatal, especially for infants.  At first, signs and symptoms of this tricky pretender might seem like a common cold — runny nose, no or low-grade fever, and cough. That’s stage 1, when pertussis is just warming up.   After a week or two, pertussis infection delivers its cruel surprise — uncontrollable, violent coughing spells.  Severe coughing attacks often leave victims gasping for air — often described as a “whooping” sound.  However, if you have been vaccinated, the infection is usually less severe and often the “whoop” is not present.

In infants, the cough can be minimal or not even there. Infants may have a symptom known as “apnea,” a long pause in the breathing pattern.

Preferred Method of Attack

Pertussis is primarily an “air attacker,” flying through the air looking for its next victim, when an infected person coughs or sneezes.  Many infants who get pertussis are infected by older siblings, parents or caregivers who might not even know they have the disease Pertussis loves crowded locations to encourage close contact among potential victims and to make its job easier.

Powers & Abilities

Pertussis is highly contagious (easy to catch). Want proof? A person with pertussis will infect almost everyone in their household if those people aren’t vaccinated.

Preferred Victims

Pertussis is a bully, often causing serious and sometimes life-threatening complications in infants and young children, especially those who are not fully vaccinated.  In infants younger than 1 year of age who get pertussis, more than half are hospitalized. And of those infants who are hospitalized, 1 in 100 will die. Also, other bacterial infectors just love to join pertussis’ party, moving into a sick person’s pertussis-infected lungs to cause their own infections. These are called “secondary infections.” Pertussis can also pull off its own complications among young children, such as pneumonia, seizures, and encephalopathy (disease of the brain). For teens and adults, pertussis can be miserable. It sometimes causes rib fractures and other complications from the coughing fits, which can last for weeks or months.

Known Weaknesses 

infant being given shot in his legPertussis fears four letters — D, T, a, and P — and 2 vaccines, DTaP and Tdap.  DTaP is for infants and children and Tdap is a booster shot for preteens, teens and adults. The vaccine ammo contains diphtheria (the D), tetanus (the T), and acellular pertussis (the aP).  The term “acellular” means that the vaccine uses pieces of pertussis bacteria (not the whole bacterium cell).  By using just pieces, the vaccine can “teach” the body to protect itself, with the fewest side effects.

While vaccination provides the best protection from pertussis, some simple basic hygiene steps ‒ wash hands with soap and water, cover up coughs and sneezes, and do not share cups and silverware ‒ may  also help to keep it in check.

Criminal Record

Doctors have actually been dealing with pertussis for at least 500 years, but pertussis cases have been on the rise in the U.S. since the 1980s.  As of late, CDC has noted an increase in cases among 7-10 year olds.  During 2010, 27,550 cases of pertussis were reported in the U.S. – the most since 1959. Twenty-seven deaths were reported – 25 of these deaths were in children younger than 1 year old.

Precautions for the Public

Stay vigilant.  We may think we’ve gotten the upper hand against pertussis.  But, the disease is always scheming to get back on top.  Recent outbreaks in schools and communities as well as the beginning of summer camp season are good reminders to take action.

Children should get 5 doses of DTaP, one dose at each of the following ages:

  • 2 months,
  • 4 months,
  • 6 months,
  • 15 through 18 months,
  • and 4 through 6 years.

While 95 percent of children in the U.S. get these vaccinations, by the time they reach adolescence, vaccine protection fades.  Therefore, to increase protection against the Pertussis Disease Villain, a booster shot (Tdap) is recommended for:

  • adolescents 11-18 years of age (preferably at age 11-12 years; about 70% of teens have received Tdap),
  • adults 19 years and older, especially those who will have close contact with an infant (about 8% of adults have received Tdap) and
  • pregnant women, preferably during the third or late second trimester.

Tdap vaccine can protect yourself and infants you might come into contact with. And by getting Tdap during pregnancy, maternal pertussis antibodies transfer to the newborn, likely providing protection against pertussis in early life, before the baby starts getting DTaP vaccines. Tdap will also protect the mother at time of delivery, making her less likely to transmit pertussis to her infant.

Situational awareness is also of the upmost importance – listen to a recording of a child with pertussis here and read the latest information on CDC’s pertussis Web site to learn how to avoid becoming the Pertussis Disease Villain’s next victim.

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12 comments on “Pertussis: A known villain. Are you protected?”

Comments listed below are posted by individuals not associated with CDC, unless otherwise stated. These comments do not represent the official views of CDC, and CDC does not guarantee that any information posted by individuals on this site is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. Read more about our comment policy ».

    This is so cute AND informative! Love the creative ways CDC is engaging the general public. Keep it up!

    What are the chances of am adult catching this awful cough?My neighbor thought she had a common cold and now a month later she has seemed to have last the cold or flu symtoms except he horrable coughing spells.(she does not have insurance,so she cannot affor to see a Doctor) Would the Tdap booster help me as a preventative measure? BTW she is originaly fror a middle eastern country and she is not sure if she recieved the inoculation as a child. From Southern California,John.

    @John D:
    Pertussis is very contagious and people of any age can catch it. Many adults got pertussis vaccines as children, but protection from those vaccines has likely decreased over time. That’s why a booster shot (Tdap) is recommended for everyone 11 and older. If you haven’t already gotten Tdap, you should talk with your doctor about getting it as soon as possible. You can learn more about pertussis symptoms, treatment and prevention at

    This article was very well ready and put together. It was easy to read and understand which is great for someone who doesnt get this. Thanks so much for the information!

    I am very concerned about this illness. I am currently 6 months pregnant. i have 2 kids already ages 7 and 5 both who will be attending school while our baby will be born. If a baby cant have the first vaccine until the age of two months old. Can anyone recommend ways of keeping my newborn safe? My other 2 children have their vaccines as do i and my husband and anyone eles who plans on being around our lil man will have theres before he comes. Is there a certain time of year where its easier to catch? My son will be born in Dec. Thanks all info will help.. Concerned Mommy!!

    @Crystal: Congratulations on the upcoming addition to your family! You have already taken some great steps to help protect your newborn from whooping cough. Vaccinating yourself and everyone who will be in close contact with your baby is the best way to protect. It’s important that those caring for your baby are vaccinated with the Tdap vaccine at least 2 weeks before coming to visit since it takes about that long for immunity to build up. The other step you should take is not letting anyone near your newborn who is coughing or has signs of a common cold, like a runny nose. If your other children come into contact at school with someone who has whooping cough, you should talk with your doctor about getting preventative antibiotics for you and your family. If your baby does catch whooping cough from someone, early treatment is key. If you ever think your baby is having trouble breathing, see a doctor right away.

    Thank you

    if you had whooping cough as a baby, plus had the vaccines growing up, do you now have an immunity to it or should you get the vaccine again?

    My daughter was diagnosed with whooping cough after we took her to the doctor a total of 6x in the last month. I was shocked that it took so long to diagnose. That being said her school refused to notify other parents of the potential harm and dangers that existed. This to me is a complete break down of the ethical obligation we hold as humans to ensure the safety of all people we may come into contact with. My teen aged daughter was in a classroom, well many classrooms for more then 2 weeks with a full cough, untreated for 2 weeks. 30 kids each room and the potential for those kids to have younger siblings or come into contact with a baby or pregnant woman is very high especially with graduations and summer break.

    The health department contacted us and told us to wear masks and to make sure everyone in our house got the antibiotics which we did. I have since developed the cough and i am concerned that I could still be contagious. I did take the 5 days of the pills and stayed home while I was taking them but at that time i had no cough. Is there a chance that after taking the round of antibiotic if i am still contagious?

    Also my daughter is not getting any better actually seems worse and I just wanted to check with someone who is more educated in this infectious disease because it is obvious no one around here is taking this seriously at all based on the school and the hospital alone no one told us to wear a mask till the health department called me and that was a day after we found out, but she is not getting better at all her mochas has come back full green and thick the cough is keeping her up all night again and I am worried about the Drs now since they have not been taking is seriously at all. I am actually concerned about everyone we could have come into contact with and I want to make sure if we could still be contagious we do not keep spreading it.
    thanks for any help

    We are sorry to hear about your family’s illnesses. Healthcare providers generally treat whooping cough with antibiotics and early treatment is very important. Treatment may make your infection less serious if you start it early, before coughing fits begin. Treatment can also help prevent spreading the disease to close contacts (people who have spent a lot of time around the infected person). It is unlikely that someone would be contagious after taking a full course of recommended antibiotics. Of note, treatment after three weeks of illness is unlikely to help. The bacteria are gone from your body by then, even though you usually will still have symptoms. This is because the bacteria have already done damage to your body. As for your daughter, we recommend that you have another discussion with her healthcare provider or another provider since CDC cannot provide personal medical advice. With whooping cough, it is possible for symptoms to reappear if you get sick with another respiratory infection, since your body hasn’t fully recovered yet from the damage the whooping cough illness caused. You can find more information and resources at You could also follow up with your local health department to discuss your questions and concerns. And, as you mentioned, it’s especially important for pregnant women and people in close contact with pregnant women and babies to be up-to-date with whooping cough vaccines.

    Getting whooping cough or getting whooping cough vaccines doesn’t provide lifelong protection. This means you can still get whooping cough and pass it onto others, including babies. Keeping up-to-date with recommended whooping cough vaccines is the best way to protect you and your loved ones.

    Is it necessary for the grandparents to be vaccinated before the baby arrives? My daughter in law is getting vaccinated during pregnancy and she says we can’t see our grandchild unless we are treated too. Please update me on the cases of treatment in Ohio. One sight says that less than 20 infants died with it in 2016. Please update for 2018.

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Page last reviewed: March 20, 2015
Page last updated: March 20, 2015