What Causes Whooping Cough?

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  • Written By: wiseGEEK Writer
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  • Last Modified Date: 19 October 2019
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Whooping cough is caused by inhalation of the airborne droplets of someone infected with pertussis. A person with pertussis who coughs or sneezes around an unvaccinated person may spread the disease readily. Pertussis is a virus, once nearly eradicated in the US after vaccinations became a standard part of well-child examinations.

Recently, however, it has made somewhat of a comeback because some parents refuse to have their children vaccinated for the illness. Also, those who come to the US illegally may not have received vaccinations and may carry the disease into the country, exposing those with either poor immune systems or who have not been vaccinated.

The most at-risk population in the US is infants who have not completed their vaccinations. Whooping cough is very contagious, and unvaccinated infants and children have a 90% chance of contracting the illness if they are in contact with other children who are ill, or if they live in a home where someone gets the disease.

Complications in infants who have whooping cough can be especially severe. They include pneumonia, seizures, encephalitis, bleeding in the eyes, and possibly death. With such risks, many wonder why some parents would choose not to vaccinate their children.


Some children cannot be vaccinated because of previous life-threatening reactions to vaccinations. In some cases, parents believe that vaccinations may be indicated in the development of autism. The medical community in Europe and the US has found that there is no medical evidence supporting this claim. Onset of autism tends to occur at about two years, when children frequently receive their last booster shot, called a DPT (diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus).

Many physicians and parents criticize the decision of some parents to not vaccinate their children, since children who get diseases like whooping cough are more apt to pass them on to people with compromised immune systems or to infants. Those who support vaccinations feel that parents who do not vaccinate their children put others at risk unnecessarily, including the lives of children who can’t be vaccinated for medical reasons. This is a very difficult and oft-disputed issue by both parents and pediatricians.

If you suspect your child has developed whooping cough it is important to see a doctor immediately. Especially in newborns the disease can cause periods of apnea, or breath holding, instead of the cough associated with the disease. Also, be certain to inform the pediatrician that you suspect whooping cough as they may have protocols they need you to follow to protect other children in their office from contagion.


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Post 7

Since whooping cough is highly contagious I wonder if having people sneeze or cough into their arm instead of their hand has made a difference in the number of whooping cough cases.

I know I get pretty frustrated when someone is sick with a contagious illness and they still come to work or hang out in public places. When you think about all the places your hands are, it is a wonder we don't get sick more often than we do.

I don't think I have ever known someone who had whooping cough. I always thought this was one of those 'old illnesses' that you never heard much about any more. If someone does come down with this, it sounds like the best whooping cough treatment is to take antibiotics.

It would also be nice if the person would stay home until they were no longer contagious, but I think that is hard for most people to do.

Post 6

It seems like you hear more stories about parents not vaccinating their children for one reason or another. If you have ever been around someone who has whooping cough, you know how bad this sounds and how serious it can be.

My doctor told me that someone can be exposed to whooping cough for 2-3 weeks before the symptoms will appear. They symptoms of whooping cough usually start out like a normal cold. When they get to the point that you have a bad, persistent cough, you might have whooping cough.

I had all of my kids vaccinated for this when they were young, so this was one less thing I had to worry about them catching. There are so many other things you worry about as a parent, I didn't want to have this on the list too.

Post 5

When my younger sister was just a baby she got the whooping cough. Whooping cough can be dangerous any time, but with a young infant, it can be really scary.

I can still remember the whooping cough sound when she would cough. It sounded like she was unable to get her breath, and the cough was deep and congested.

My parents got her to the doctor right away before it became worse. Since this is so contagious, they were also concerned about the older kids catching it too.

As far as I know we had all been vaccinated for it, and none of us ever got it. My sister was too young to have received all of the vaccinations and probably caught it from being exposed to someone else who had it.

Post 4

Hopefully, as whooping cough information continues to spread, more and more people will get the proper vaccines.

I think something not all adults realize is that adults need boosters of this shot as well. Unfortunately, it is available only in combination with tetanus (an unpleasant shot that people are not going to want to have extra times! So from my perspective, what needs to happen is for more doctors to make sure that adults getting a tetanus booster are reminded of the need for a pertussis booster and are given the combination shot rather than just the tetanus/diptheria.

It's especially important for anyone around infants to have the shot and apparently new research shows that it is safe for pregnant women, so expectant parents especially should talk to their doctors!

Post 3

@ysmina-- That's right, the vaccine cannot be given until two months. In addition, it takes a minimum of three vaccinations for an infant to become immune to the whooping cough bacteria. Since the second and third vaccines are given at four and six months, a child is not immune until he or she is six months old!

That's why even children who are getting their vaccinations must be kept away from people who show whooping cough symptoms. The reason the bacteria causes coughing is because it settles into lung tissue and prevents the lungs from getting rid of debris.

The cough and the following deep inhale (the whoop) is the lung's efforts to get rid of debris. But when someone with the bacteria coughs, the bacteria goes into the air and will infect anyone who inhales it.

Post 2

@simrin-- I don't agree with you, I believe all children must be vaccinated for pertussis (whooping cough) especially because it is so contagious.

Whooping cough isn't caused by a virus, it's caused by a bacteria. It grows in the throat and can pass around very easily in crowded public places, especially at schools. The good thing about this bacteria is that it's not very dangerous for adults because adults respond well to antibiotics. The cough is usually the only symptom they experience.

But for children, especially infants, it causes difficulty in breathing (that doesn't happen to adults) and that's why it's more dangerous. The first vaccine for whooping cough is given when the infant is two months old

. That means that the child is unprotected for the first two months of its life.

If older children in the house are not vaccinated, they can easily carry the bacteria home from school, pass it onto other family members including any infants. A month old infant who gets the bacteria can suffer from horrible consequences.

No matter what the risk of vaccination might be, it cannot be as bad as the risks associated with not vaccinating children.

Post 1

As far as I know, whooping cough can affect people even though they have had their immunizations. That's what a coworker claimed anyway when he was down with it. I don't know how common that is though, I'm guessing it's quite rare.

What upsets me the most about people who catch the virus is not that they didn't get the whooping cough vaccine, but rather that some continue to be in public places while they're sick. I think it's a personal decision to be immunized or not. But if you decide not to have your child immunized, at least don't send them to school while they're sick where other kids can get it.

My coworker was at home

for close to a month because of whooping cough recently. He got it from his son who picked it up from other kids at school. He didn't come to work until he was better and didn't send his son to school either so that others wouldn't get it. That's the right thing to do because not just for kids, this illness can be very dangerous for adults and the elderly too.

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