The Back to School Whooping Cough Vaccine

Beginning this school year, all 7th graders in South Carolina are required to have a whooping cough vaccine. Until now, the vaccine was recommended for this age group and routinely given, but not required. What is whooping cough? Why is it dangerous? And why is there concern now?

Dr. Lillie Bates, Lexington Pediatric Practice

Dr. Lillie Bates, Lexington Pediatric Practice


We ask Lillie Bates, MD, of Lexington Pediatric Practice, a Lexington Medical Center physician practice.

What is whooping cough?Whooping cough is bacterial infection with a very specific cough marked by a “whoop” sound while gasping for breath. A bacteria called bordetella pertussis causes it. Whooping cough is very dangerous for infants because they can cough so much that they lose their breath. In fact, more than half of infants with whooping cough have to be hospitalized.

Why do 7th graders need the whooping cough vaccine?
Children are usually vaccinated for whooping cough with the Tdap (diptheria, tetanus and pertussis) vaccine five times between age two months and the beginning of elementary school. The vaccine provides immunity for about five years, but then starts to decrease. That makes older children, teenagers and adults more likely to contract whooping cough and spread it to others. Giving children another dose of the vaccine during adolescence will help to prevent that.

What happens when an older child gets whooping cough?
Most of the cases of whooping cough I’ve treated are in middle school age students. Older children with whooping cough can have a significant cough that lasts for 10 to 12 weeks. It’s a nagging, lengthy illness that affects their rest – because they’re up at night coughing. Consequently, it impacts their schoolwork and activities, too.

Wasn’t whooping cough eradicated?
In the 1940s, there were approximately 175,000 cases of whooping cough each year in the United States. By 1970, that number dropped to 5,000. But more recently, whooping cough has been on the rise again. In 2010, there were more than 27,550 cases nationally. Most of the cases are among adolescents and teenagers, and babies less than six months old. Part of the reason for the increase may be that the makeup of the whooping cough vaccine has changed – and the new formula might not challenge the immune system as much.

What are the symptoms of whooping cough?
Whooping cough starts by mimicking a cold. Then, the patient gets worse and develops the distinctive “whoop” in a cough. That phase can last for several weeks or even months.

How do you catch whooping cough?
Whooping cough spreads when people come in contact with respiratory droplets of an infected person. It’s very contagious.

Who else should get vaccinated against whooping cough?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also recommends that a single dose of the booster shot Tdap is recommended for adults 19-64 years of age, adults over age 65 who have contact with infants, health care personnel and pregnant women in their third or late second trimester who have not previously received Tdap.

To hear what whooping cough sounds like, click here.

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