What is Pertussis (aka Whooping Cough)?
In the beginning the illness looks like a common cold, with a fever, sneezing, runny nose, and a normal sounding cough. After 1-2 weeks, most of the symptoms resolve but the cough sticks around and just gets worse. Many kids will develop what are called “paroxysms” of coughing, meaning they will have bad coughing fits where they will cough several times in a row, followed by a gasp for breath (the “whoop” in whooping cough).
Kids may cough so much they throw up, give themselves nosebleeds, or break blood vessels in their eyes (a generally harmless condition called subconjunctival hemorrhage).
How Common is Pertussis?
Is Pertussis Dangerous?
The 100 Days Cough
The other issue is that a kid can get pertussis over and over again - unlike a lot of infections, getting pertussis once doesn’t make you immune.
The Pertussis Vaccine: It Puts the “P” in DTaP
NOTE: The DTaP vaccine is how a kid gets vaccinated against tetanus. You can not get your child (or yourself) at vaccine for tetanus alone - it is always given either with pertussis and diphtheria (DTaP) or with diphtheria (TD).
When is the Pertussis (DTaP) vaccine given?
The CDC recommends that kids starts getting DTaP at 2 months, again at 4 months and 6 months. Booster shots are given at 15 months, 18 months, and a final booster some time between ages 4-6.
NOTE: Newborns are never given pertussis vaccines because their immune systems are unable to produce antibodies until they are around 2 months old.
How Effective is the Pertussis Vaccine?
In adults the vaccine is less effective: only 70% of adults will be immune to pertussis one year after getting their Tdap shot (the adult version of DTaP), while after 4 years this drops down to 35%.
Are There Risks Associated with the Pertussis vaccine?
A study in the UK of 448 children and adolescents showed that about 1% of the children who had never received any immunizations had asthma, and 3% of those who had been given vaccinations other than pertussis had asthma. In contrast, 11% of those kids who got the pertussis vaccine went on to develop asthma.
While pertussis in infancy is a very serious illness, it’s important to remember that asthma is a serious illness as well - while the overall mortality rate of pertussis is 0.05%, asthma, which can be a lifelong illness, has an overall yearly mortality rate of 0.02% (3,630 people per year).
When getting a DTaP vaccine is an especially good idea:
- If your child is in daycare
- If you, your child, or close caretakers are around other children (especially unvaccinated kids)
- If your child has any other medical condition that would make a pertussis infection especially dangerous for them, such as immunodeficiency or Down’s syndrome
- If your child has a medical condition that might make them especially susceptible to contracting pertussis, such as asthma
- If your child is around unvaccinated infants, other children with immunodeficiency, or any other medically vulnerable kids (in order to help protect the other child)
My baby isn’t vaccinated against pertussis.
What can I do to protect her?
- Asking adults who are around your child to get their Tdap vaccinations for that year (sometimes called “Infant Cocooning”). Adults and adolescents in your child’s immediate environment are much less likely to have negative side effects from the vaccine - and they are the most common way for an infant to get pertussis!
- Making sure adults and other children who touch or hold your baby have washed their hands, whether they have been vaccinated or not.
- Keeping your baby at home and away from other infants or children for the first six months - especially from other unvaccinated kids!