June 15, 2018

Whooping Cough – Who All Should Get Vaccinated to Keep Infants Safe?

By Ashley McClary, MD

The Buncombe County Health and Human Services Department recently announced a public health alert regarding whooping cough. There were several cases of whooping cough, or pertussis, from at least four different schools in Buncombe County. When talking to families I find that there is an immediate, gut reaction of fear for their child but then comes the skeptical side. What is so bad about whooping cough?

Whooping cough is caused by a bacteria called Bordetella pertussis. It’s a highly contagious disease affecting the lungs leading to a progressively worsening cough from the thick mucus that builds up in one’s airways. The disease gets its name from the typical whoop sound occurring between coughing fits.

Although anyone can get whooping cough, those most at risk are young infants because they are too young to be vaccinated. These babies also suffer the most complications and may actually stop breathing – leading to hospitalization, pneumonia, seizures, brain disorders and in rare cases even death. In fact, one study found that approximately 1 out of every 3 infants with whooping cough needed to be hospitalized.

Although infants are most at risk of complications, adults, children and adolescents can also get the whooping cough. Over half of all cases are in those older than 11 years of age.

The disease is spread through sneezing or coughing while in close contact. Those with whooping cough are most contagious during the first two weeks of the illness – many times before one knows they have the illness.

So, what can you do to help prevent the disease?

The best way to prevent the spread of pertussis in communities is to ensure you and everyone in your family is vaccinated. Infants receive 5 doses of pertussis vaccine between 2 months and 5 years. It’s important for all caretakers to be vaccinated as a way to reduce the spread of disease.

Visit the two resources below for up-to-date information on the recommended vaccination schedule. If you believe you have come in contact with pertussis or have symptoms of pertussis, seek medical care as antibiotic treatment may be indicated.


Ashley McClary, MD, is a pediatrician at McDowell Pediatrics in Marion.

To make an appointment with McDowell Pediatrics, call 828-652-6386. To find a pediatric provider in your area, visit missionhealth.org/provider.

References: