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Whooping Cough FAQ

Pertussis (Whooping Cough)

Updated July 7, 2015

Dowload Pertussis Fact Sheet (pdf)

Where can I get vaccinated?
What is pertussis?

Who gets whooping cough?
How common is whooping cough in Spokane?
How common is whooping cough in Washington?
How does whooping cough spread?
How soon do symptoms appear?
How is pertussis prevented?
Who needs whooping cough vaccine?
What should I do if I think someone in my family has whooping cough?
Who is coming down with whooping cough/pertussis - vaccinated or unvaccinated population?
Is there a possibility that kids/people are contracting it from other recently vaccinated people?


Where can I get vaccinated?

If an individual or a child’s vaccination records show a need for updates, they should call their health care provider or talk with their pharmacist.

What is pertussis?

Pertussis (whooping cough) is a highly-contagious bacterial infection that causes a long-lasting and often severe cough. Bordetella pertussis, a bacterium, causes pertussis. The illness usually starts with mild cold symptoms or cough, which can turn into severe coughing spells followed by gagging, or vomiting and sometimes a “whoop” sound when trying to catch the breath. Young infants, adolescents and adults with whooping cough are less likely to make the “whoop” sound. Infants with pertussis may eat poorly, turn blue, or stop breathing. Infants are also at highest risk for severe pertussis complications that require hospitalization such as difficulty breathing, pneumonia, convulsions, and even death.

Who gets whooping cough?

Anyone exposed to the bacteria can get whooping cough but severe illness is more common in infants and young kids who have not been immunized or who have not yet had enough doses of vaccine to be fully protected. No vaccine is 100 percent effective, so even vaccinated people can catch this very contagious disease. Immunized older kids, adolescents, or adults may have milder symptoms so health care providers may not recognize their illness as whooping cough. Immunity, either from having the disease or from getting vaccinated, decreases over time so it’s important to get booster doses of pertussis vaccine on time.

How common is whooping cough in Spokane?

Although Spokane County did not begin 2015 with dramatic whooping cough rates, as Washington state did, county numbers started to escalate in June 2015. In 2015 there have been 24 cases of whooping cough reported in the county, compared to five reported cases during the same period in 2014—10 of these cases were reported in June alone.

The last whooping cough outbreak was in 2012, when 198 cases were reported in Spokane County.

How common is whooping cough in Washington?

Typically, between 400 and 1,000 cases are reported each year, with peaks every 3-5 years. But, Washington state experienced a whooping cough outbreak in 2012, reaching epidemic levels. That year, 4,916 cases were reported in the state, including 198 in Spokane. While reporting levels returned to normal over the last two years, Spokane and the state are experiencing another increase in cases in 2015. Current data can be found here.

How does whooping cough spread?

Whooping cough spreads by coughing and sneezing. Infants often get whooping cough from family members or caregivers who don’t know they’re sick. The disease in older kids and adults can be quite mild and if untreated, an infected person can spread pertussis for several weeks. Providers should consider a diagnosis of whooping cough in anyone with persistent coughs in order to prevent spreading the infection to infants and young kids.

How soon do symptoms appear?

Symptoms start 5 to 21 days (average 7 to 10 days) after exposure.

How is pertussis prevented?

Get vaccinated to prevent pertussis. Community (or herd) immunity helps slow down the spread of disease but only works when most people are immune. At least nine out of 10 of us must have immunity to whooping cough to keep the disease from spreading. Kids and adults can get vaccinated to help stop outbreaks and lower the risk of infection to babies and others most likely to get severe cases of pertussis. People who have (or may have) whooping cough should get antibiotics early in their illness and stay home from work or school and away from young kids and infants until properly treated or until they no longer have symptoms. Providers can prescribe preventive antibiotics to people in close contact with someone with whooping cough if they are at high risk for severe disease or have close contact with those at high risk for severe disease.

Who needs whooping cough vaccine?

Before age 7, kids should get five doses of the diphtheria, tetanus, and acellular pertussis vaccine (DTaP).

The following people should get one dose of a different type of tetanus diphtheria and accellular pertussis vaccine (Tdap):

  • Adolescents aged 11 to 18 years (preferably at age 11 or 12 years).
  • Kids aged 7 to 10 years who are not up-to-date on their whooping cough vaccinations (and then continue as needed with the recommended doses of diphtheria and tetanus vaccines).
  • Adults aged 19 to 64 years who have not had the Tdap vaccine before.
  • Pregnant women in the late second or early third trimester who have not had the Tdap vaccine before.
  • Adults 65 years or older who have not had the Tdap vaccine and have close contact with kids younger than 12 months.
  • Health care workers who provide direct patient care and who have not had the Tdap vaccine before.

The Tdap booster vaccine is very important for everyone who will have contact with new infants, especially pregnant women, family members, and health care workers.

What should I do if I think someone in my family has whooping cough?

It is important to consider a diagnosis of whooping cough whenever someone has a persistent cough, especially if it lasts longer than two weeks, or if the coughing occurs in “spells” followed by difficulty catching the breath or gagging. If you think you or one of your family members has whooping cough, call your health care provider and ask about the disease. Try to stay away from other people until treated (or until another diagnosis for the cough proves it’s not contagious).

Who is coming down with whooping cough/pertussis - vaccinated or unvaccinated population?

Because the vast majority of children are vaccinated against pertussis, the majority of pertussis cases in school-aged children have been vaccinated, HOWEVER, that does not tell us how well the vaccine protects vaccinated people compared to unvaccinated people. For example, the majority of people injured in car accidents are wearing seat belts, but we know that does not mean seat belts do not prevent injury compared to not wearing them. The real question is what is the RISK of pertussis if you are vaccinated compared to the RISK if you are not vaccinated, and the answer is the risk is MUCH higher for unvaccinated people.

The rates of pertussis are higher in communities where more children are unvaccinated. Before we had pertussis vaccines, there were on average 200,000 cases and 4,000 deaths from pertussis each year in the United States, these numbers have fallen by over 90% because of routine childhood vaccination.

Is there a possibility that kids/people are contracting it from other recently vaccinated people? 

Whooping cough vaccines cannot give you whooping cough since they do not contain any live bacteria. The whooping cough vaccines we use today for children and adults in the United States contain purified, inactivated parts of the bacterium that causes whooping cough (Bordetella pertussis). Since there is no live virus, there is no chance that it could be passed from one person to another. 

Where can I get more information?
SRHD Whooping Cough Fact Sheet
DTaP: What You Need to Know
SRHD Immunization Web page
Washington State Department of Health
Translated Materials (Spanish, Russian, Hmong, Somali, Karen, Nepali, Burmese)

SRHD Communicable Disease Epidemiology at 509-324-1442
Office of Immunization and Child Profile at 360-236-3595



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August 21, 2017