Q: Are there more whooping cough cases occurring than normal?

Infectious Diseases Vaccines

A: In the first 5 months of 2024, there were nearly 3 times the number of cases reported in the U.S. by this time last year. Cases are also up globally. Make sure you are up-to-date on this vaccine!

TL; DR: Whooping cough cases are on the rise. Key time points for this vaccine are 2 months-6 years (5 doses), 11-12 years (1 dose), every 10 years in adults (1 dose), and 3rd trimester of pregnancy (1 dose).

While cases of whooping cough (also known as pertussis) declined during the first few years of the COVID-19 pandemic in part to the precautions people were taking to prevent the spread of COVID-19 (i.e., wearing masks, social distancing), we are now seeing a return to the same (or greater) number of cases that were happening before the onset of the pandemic. At the same time, vaccination rates against whooping cough have declined in school age children in recent years and others of us may have gotten behind on getting the recommended doses in adulthood making it important to get up-to-date on this vaccine!

The key time points for this vaccine are:

✅ 2, 4, and 6 months, between 15-18 months, and between 4-6 years (5 doses of the Dtap vaccine).
✅ 11-12 years (one dose of the Tdap vaccine)
✅ Adulthood (one dose of the Tdap vaccine every 10 years)
✅ Pregnancy (one dose of the Tdap vaccine during the 3rd trimester of each pregnancy to help protect babies in the weeks after birth before they can be vaccinated)

NOTE: People who had a tetanus booster (aka Td booster) within the last 10 years but never had the Tdap vaccine, should get Tdap now. New grandparents, or anyone who is going to spend any time around newborns, should 100% make sure they are up-to-date on this vaccine.

What is whooping cough anyway?

Whooping cough is caused by infection with the bacteria Bordetella pertussis and spread via droplets expelled into the air when people sneeze or cough. Those with this illness experience respiratory symptoms (runny or stuffy nose, low-grade fever and cough) and because it causes inflammation of the airways, it can lead to difficulty breathing and a cough that makes a high-pitched “whoop” sound, hence the name “whooping cough”. The cough people develop can last for weeks and it is VERY contagious (for up to several weeks after the cough begins).

Whooping cough is particularly dangerous for infants who have small airways (i.e., can cause life-threatening pauses in breathing and cyanosis or skin to turn blue in infants). About 1 in 3 newborns with whooping cough are hospitalized and about 1 in 10 who are hospitalized die. The severe cough caused by this illness can also lead to injuries like broken ribs and hospitalization in older adults.

Luckily, there is a vaccine available! Protection from this vaccine does wane over time, though, so it is important to stay up-to-date to protect yourself and others. Doing so will not only protect you, but high rates of vaccination against pertussis in a community can lower the chances newborns and young children get exposed before they have the chance to get fully vaccinated.

If you aren’t sure if you are due for another shot, you can check your vaccination status with your clinician or your state vaccine registry and Tdap shots are available at your local pharmacy or clinical office if you are due.

For more on rising cases, see here or here or here.

For more on whooping cough symptoms as well as severity in infants, see here.

For more on declining vaccination rates, see here.

Graphic source

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