Health Watch -- Whooping Cough Comeback

Health Watch is a Public Service of the  Office of News and Publications and is intended to provide general information only and should not replace the advice of a medical professional. You should contact your physician if you have questions about any of these topics.

Available vaccines haven’t wiped out all potentially deadly childhood diseases.

Vaccines and immunization have made many dreaded childhood diseases, such as polio, a thing of the past. But children aren’t being adequately vaccinated against some preventable diseases. One disease that’s making a comeback is pertussis, or whooping cough. Doctors are seeing more cases of this potentially deadly disease.

Infants should receive four shots, beginning at 2 months of age, and then a booster shot at age four, in order to be fully protected against whooping cough. Doctors at UT Southwestern Medical Center at Dallas say part of the danger is that protection against whooping cough wears off in adulthood, and there isn’t an available booster shot for adults and older children. That means unvaccinated infants are at risk of catching the illness from others. The disease is spread by bacteria that are sent into the air by talking, sneezing or coughing.

While whooping cough isn’t usually life-threatening in adults and is often misdiagnosed as asthma or bronchitis, the disease can be deadly for infants because they struggle to breathe during the characteristic coughing fits. The disease gets its name from the whooping sound patients make when they’re trying to breathe while coughing.

Dr. Jane Siegel, a UT Southwestern pediatrician, says the most important thing is for infants to be vaccinated on schedule. Adults and teens who have a severe cough that lingers for more than two weeks need to see a doctor to be tested for whooping cough, and then treated so they are less likely to spread the disease.