Whooping Cough (Pertussis)

Whooping Cough (Pertussis) is a respiratory bacterial infection that effects the lungs and breathing passages.

At-Risk Populations

Pertussis can occur at any age, but it is especially dangerous for infants. Infants have trouble fighting off the infection. Therefore, they suffer the highest rates of hospital admission and death.


Pertussis usually starts with cold-like symptoms, such as coughing, sneezing, and a runny nose. It's often diagnosed after a cough lasts more than one to two weeks. The cough is usually not harmful to adults and older children, but can be dangerous for babies. Sometimes children have a hard time catching their breath. It's not unusual for children to spit up, vomit, or be exhausted after coughing. Infants might also have breathing problems or develop serious medical conditions such as pneumonia, seizures, and brain damage. Pertussis is also known as "whooping cough" because of the "whoop" sound children or other patients sometimes make during coughing.

How It Spreads

Pertussis is a very contagious disease and is spread through the air from person to person by direct contact with respiratory droplets generated during sneezing and coughing. Infants often get pertussis from older brothers and sisters, parents, or other caregivers who might not even know they have it.


The best way to protect adults, children, and babies from pertussis is to get the recommended vaccine and booster shots, which are safe.

Vaccines are first given at two months of age, then again at four, six, and 15-18 months, and again between four to six years old. A booster shot also is recommended for children by age 11. In Rhode Island, students in seventh grade are required to get this booster. Teens and adults who haven't yet received their boosters should get one as soon as possible. When in doubt about whether you're up-to-date on your shots, speak with a doctor to find out what's best for you and your family.

Keep anyone with a cough away from babies and newborns. Also make sure everyone who comes in contact with infants is up-to-date on their shots.

Pregnant Women

Health experts (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, or CDC) now recommend that all pregnant women receive a Tdap shot during each pregnancy between 27 to 36 weeks. It is safe, however, for a pregnant woman to get a Tdap shot at any time during pregnancy. Because infants are too young to be fully vaccinated with Tdap, giving the mother Tdap during pregnancy protects the baby from pertussis before he or she is born.

People Who Are Around Infants

The best way to protect infants is to make sure that the people around them have gotten their Tdap shots. Protecting your baby this way is known as "cocooning". People who will be around your baby may include family members, relatives, friends, and other caregivers.

Testing & Diagnosis

Pertussis can be diagnosed by your healthcare provider. Diagnosis is through a laboratory test which involves taking a swab from the back of your nose.


Pertussis can be treated with antibiotics. Close contacts of patients known to have pertussis may also be prescribed preventive antibiotics.