Updated July 28, 2014
Pertussis, or whooping cough, is a highly contagious upper respiratory infection caused by Bordetella pertussis or Bordetella parapertussis bacteria. It is a serious disease that can cause permanent disability in infants, and even death.
The disease spreads from person to person when someone breathes in the tiny droplets that enter the air when an infected person sneezes or coughs. These droplets can also end up on surfaces like tabletops or door handles and when a person touches them and then touches their nose, mouth, or eyes, the bacteria enter their body.
At first, whooping cough may seem like an ordinary cold but can become more serious. After a week or two, signs and symptoms worsen, and can include coughing fits so severe it makes it difficult to breathe. Severe and prolonged coughing attacks may: bring up thick phlegm, provoke vomiting, result in a red or blue face, cause extreme fatigue, or end with a high-pitched "whoop" sound during the next breath of air.
For the best protection against whooping cough, children need five shots. Infants can be vaccinated starting at age 2 months, and again at 4 and 6 months. Until all three shots are completed, infants are at serious risk for severe illness and even death from whooping cough.
A fourth shot is recommended for children between age 15 and18 months, and a fifth shot is given when a child enters school, at age 4 to 6 years. Immunity wears off, so adults need a booster shot, particularly those who live with, or care for, an infant.
Learn more abut Tdap (whooping cough) vaccinations for children >