5 Things Grandparents Need to Know About Whooping Cough

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mother and granparent dressing infant in bedroom

When you get that first look at your new grandchild, your heart starts beating a little faster. You’ve never seen anything or anyone so adorable in your whole life.

The last thing you’d ever want to do is to unintentionally harm them. You might not even realize you have exposed them to a very serious and very contagious respiratory infection called pertussis. Whooping cough is the nickname for this infection caused by the Bordetella pertussis bacteria. It starts with cold-like symptoms, including a mild cough and a runny nose, and progresses to a persistent, even violent cough. The coughing fits can last for weeks, even months. And unfortunately, whooping cough can be very, very dangerous for babies and young children. Before you pack your suitcase for a trip to see your grandchildren, take some time to learn about whooping cough and how you can help protect them.

1. Symptoms can vary.

If you’ve ever heard the distinctive “whoop” that gives whooping cough its name, you’ll never forget it. It’s a sudden, hard intake of breath after a bout of hard coughing. Some people describe it as sounding almost otherworldly--but everyone would call it an alarming sound. But adults don’t always develop that distinctive cough when they have contracted pertussis. Instead, they just have a pesky, lingering cough, and as a result, they don’t always realize they actually have whooping cough. So if you develop a bad cough, and you can’t seem to kick it, it might be whooping cough. Call your doctor--and postpone any visits with your very young grandchildren until you’ve gotten your cough checked out.

2. Whooping cough can be deadly.

It’s not just a bad cough. Whooping cough can cause serious side effects like seizures and even pneumonia in babies and small children who get infected. Even worse, whooping cough can be deadly. Worldwide, more than 160,000 people die each year from whooping cough. In the United States, infant vaccination has helped curtail the rate. About 8,000 people died every year from pertussis before recommendations for infant vaccination were implemented. But whooping cough is still a serious problem. Between 15,000 and 50,000 cases of whooping cough are still reported in the U.S. each year, and about 20 babies still die each year from whooping cough.

3. It takes time for a baby to build immunity.

An infant can receive the first in a series of vaccinations for whooping cough at age two months. The vaccine is called DTaP, which stands for diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis. After the first dose, babies get subsequent doses at four months and six months, along with boosters at 15 months and four years. The reason for the series of shots is that it takes time for the body’s immune system to be ready to mount an effective response against that pertussis bacteria. Until a child has received the full series, the child is potentially at risk.

4. Adults should be vaccinated, too.

Doctors recommend a dose of a vaccine called Tdap for adults and adolescents, especially if they’re going to be around young children. Tdap is similar to DTaP in that it provides protection against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis. While the two vaccines are similar, it's important babies get the DTaP--and that adults get the TdaP and not the DTaP. So when your healthcare provider urges you to get a booster shot to protect against whooping cough, they’re recommending the Tdap.

When you get the Tdap booster vaccination, you’re helping to stop the spread of the pertussis bacteria--that is, you’re reducing the spread of this germ that can infect and harm vulnerable people. You’re reducing not only their chances for catching whooping cough but also developing potentially serious secondary complications. It can also help you, too. Even though whooping cough is not as dangerous for adults, whooping cough can still be a long, unpleasant experience and if left untreated can progress into pneumonia.

5. Immunity can wear off over time.

You may have been fully vaccinated against whooping cough as a child, so you may be wondering if you even need to worry about contracting or spreading whooping cough. Unfortunately, the protection afforded by the vaccine wanes over time, leaving you less protected than you once were. That’s why experts strongly recommend  adolescents over age 11 and adults over 65 ask to receive a shot of the Tdap vaccine. It will “boost” their immunity levels and provide that important protection. So, If you haven’t received the Tdap for whooping cough and you’re planning to spend time with your young grandchildren, it’s definitely time to roll up your sleeve.

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Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Aug 11
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