Whooping Cough Vaccine

December 5, 2019
Amy Bentley, MD, FACP

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If you are pregnant or a new baby is coming into your extended family, you have probably heard about the whooping cough vaccine, known as Tdap.  This vaccine protects against tetanus, diphtheria and whooping cough (pertussis).  This is very similar to the DaPT  vaccine series we give infants, but serves a slightly different purpose for those over the age 12.  Pregnant moms and family members are strongly encouraged to get the Tdap vaccine to protect the new baby.  Whooping cough is a bacterial infection that is highly contagious – especially within the first 3 weeks. Whooping cough in adolescents and healthy adults is a prolonged irritating cough lasting up to 3- 4 months before resolution.  Initial symptoms are similar to  a viral illness with mild cough, runny nose and generalized malaise.   During the second week of the illness the cough worsens into a rapid succession of coughs.  The cough is usually worse at night and can interfere with sleep. In between coughing spasms, adult patients usually feel well.  Finally after another 2 weeks, the cough starts to improve and improves slowly over several more weeks.

Though this illness can be very irritating to healthy adults and adolescents, it can be quite devastating to infants who have not completed the DaPT series, to adults with a weakened immune system and to adults over 65.  Whooping cough in these patients can easily result in hospitalization.   Whooping cough is caused by a type of bacteria, and antibiotics will kill the bacteria.  Unfortunately for adults and children, the antibiotics do change the course of the illness, but it does not prevent transmission.

The Tdap provides protection to those who are healthy and helps prevent transmission of the bacteria to those at higher risk, especially to infants. So, if you are going to be around a new baby, ask your doctor if you need the Tdap vaccine.  Not just for you, but for the new addition.