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You are here: Back to Home > Infectious Illnesses > Pertussis > Dangers of Pertussis | How Dangerous is the Whooping Cough

Dangers of Pertussis

Pertussis, called whooping cough, is not typically dangerous; however, in young children and infants, the infection can become difficult because of the coughing associated with the illness. Most children who get whooping cough catch it from people in public areas or by family members who have been exposed. Although many children are fully vaccinated with the pertussis vaccine (DTaP), outbreaks are still common. Most children will contract pertussis when they are between the ages of 3 and 10 years old.

Pertussis is one of the normal childhood illnesses that seem to go in cycles with resurgence every 3 to 5 years. Whooping cough, or pertussis, is a highly contagious bacterial disease that, in rare cases and the very young (under 12 months of age), can be fatal. It leads to severe coughing that causes children to make a distinctive whooping sound as they gasp for breath.

Other potential complications may be other respiratory ailments, sleep apnea, needing oxygen (mostly during a coughing spell) and dehydration from fever. Chances are, as an adolescent or adult, the complications are not severe since most will have a healthy immune system able to fight the bacterial infection.

Serious Cases

In children 1 year old and younger, 1 percent reportedly had seizures and one in eight developed pneumonia, according to the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases. Complications get even worse for infants under 2 months of age: Nine children in 10 in that age group are hospitalized, and one in 100 will die from pertussis complications. The risk of getting pneumonia occurs in about 1 in 5 children under the age of 1 year. Up to 75 percent of infants younger than 6 months old with whooping cough will receive hospital treatment. In this age group, the infection can be life threatening so seek medical attention.


We do not know how many of the infants who die received their first pertussis (DTaP) vaccine or other vaccines that may have contributed to those deaths. This information is not available but warrants further investigation. These children, if not breastfed and getting immunity from mother’s milk, may be just too immature to fight off the infection or may be immune compromised.

Dangers of New Bacterial Strain

Symptoms of the latest whopping cough outbreaks that occurred in the state of California and across the United States in 2010-2011, have been a milder form and not as dangerous. The current vaccine for pertussis (DTaP) will not prevent the illness, as it is a new strain of bacteria responsible for the illnesses. Since the 1980s, whooping cough has increased, mostly because of a new bacterial strain called B parapertussis. According to Barbara Fisher of the National Vaccine Information Center, (NVIC) the outbreaks in pertussis are the result of a new strain identified as parapertussis, another Bordetella organism, which is a new virulent pathogen that has evolved due to the vaccine. It appears to be a milder case of the infection but is very difficult to differentiate between the whooping cough for which we vaccinate.

Fisher reported: “The DTaP vaccine, given five times to children under age 6 and booster doses for teenagers and adults does not protect against whooping cough caused by B. parapertussis.” (1) This was also reported in the JAMA, Whooping Cough Caused by Bordetella Pertussis and Bordetella Parapertussis in an Immunized Population, in 1998 (2) showing that the outbreaks are due to this new strain. This new strain seems to be a milder form of the illness but like any pertussis infection, the very young or immune compromised may be at greater risk.

Because pertussis outbreaks occur once every 3 to 5 years, it seems to coincide with the vaccine efficacy wearing off after 3 to 5 years. Even with a vaccination, the virus is still highly contagious. For anyone with a weak immune system or those people not in overall good health, it is suggested to get medical advice to avoid complications. For most adolescents and adults, however, a mild case of pertussis can still cause the annoyance of a constant cough and missing school or work but will result in life-time immunity!

Pertussis is still a highly contagious infectious disease. Though the risk of pertussis has declined drastically since the 1950s, it does seem to come in waves. Therefore, we need to focus on promoting health proactively – or the alternative will be a weakened immune system and vulnerability to all infectious illnesses.

  • (1) National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC) www.NVIC.org, Barbara Fisher
  • (2) JAMA, 1998 Whooping Cough Caused by Bordetella pertussis and Bordetella parapertussis in an Immunized Population ,Qiushui He, MD; Matti K. Viljanen, MD; Heikki Arvilommi, MD; Birgitta Aittanen; Jussi Mertsola, MD

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