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Pertussis (Whooping Cough) Disease & Vaccine Quick Facts

Pertussis (whooping cough)

  • Pertussis, commonly referred to as whooping cough, is a respiratory disease caused by the Bordetella (B.) pertussis bacterium. B. pertussis bacteria attach themselves to the mucus membranes of the respiratory tract and cause inflammation in the body.1 Only a lab test will positively confirm the exact organism causing the whooping cough symptoms.2
  • Pertussis whooping cough is highly contagious. Whooping cough disease circulates all year long, however, in North America, more cases are diagnosed in the summer and fall.3
  • Whooping cough disease is transmitted from person to person through coughing, sneezing and by coming into direct contact with nasal secretions and mucus from the respiratory tract of a person who is actively contagious. People are most contagious in the early stages when symptoms may be mild and include only a stuffy or runny nose and nagging, dry cough.4
  • The major symptom of B. pertussis whooping cough disease is uncontrollable coughing. In advanced stages, thick mucous develops in the lungs and clogs air passages, triggering violent episodes of coughing, choking and vomiting up of mucous followed by a high-pitched intake of breath that sounds like "whoop." With whooping cough disease, it is possible to have such violent coughing spells, especially at night, 5 where large amounts of mucous are vomited up through the mouth and nose and interfere with breathing. The fatality rate for B. pertussis whooping cough disease is highest in infants under six months of age.6 Older children and adults can suffer rib fractures from violent coughing fits.7 Permanent health problems resulting from whooping cough disease can include brain inflammation,8 seizure disorders,9 mental retardation, learning disabilities, ADD/ADHD and other chronic illness.10
  • There are no prescription drugs that cure pertussis, but many doctors routinely prescribe antibiotics to try to reduce a person’s ability to transmit the disease to others. Antibiotics are also given to help prevent secondary infections such as bronchitis, pneumonia, and otitis media (inner ear infection). In the past, these complications caused many of the deaths following whooping cough.11  
  • In 1922, there were 107,473 pertussis cases reported in the U.S. with 5,099 deaths.12 In the United States, deaths from pertussis infections dropped by more than 75% between 1922 and 1948, the year beforethe DPT vaccine was licensed. Mortality associated with pertussis declined dramatically in the 1940’s as living conditions improved.13

Pertussis Vaccine

  • In the U.S. today, pertussis vaccine is administered only in a combination shot (DTaP, Tdap) that contains vaccines for diphtheria (D), tetanus (T), and pertussis (whooping cough) (P). A pertussis vaccine containing shot is routinely given in the U.S. six times: at two, four, and six months old; between 15 and 18 months old; and between four and six years old. Another booster dose is given at 12-13 years of age (Tdap). The ACIP also recommends that pregnant women receive a dose of Tdap vaccine during each pregnancy, between 27 and 36 weeks gestation, regardless of a previous history of Tdap vaccine.14 However, this recommendation contradicts the information provided by the vaccine manufacturers statement that the safety and effectiveness of vaccination has “not been established in pregnant women”.15 16
  • There are currently 9 different pertussis vaccines licensed in United States.17 DTaP/Tdap vaccines packaged in single dose vials contain reduced bioactive pertussis toxin, less endotoxin than the DTP vaccine, and may contain trace amounts of mercury, along with an aluminum adjuvant. Depending upon the vaccine manufacturer, vaccines containing pertussis may contain varying amounts of inactivated pertussis toxin, filamentous hemagglutinin (FDA), pertactin, fimbriae, formaldehyde, polysorbate 80 (Tween 80), gluteraldehyde, 2-phenoxoyethanol, aluminum and thimerosal (mercury).18
  • IMPORTANT: Parents should monitor their children carefully day and night for at least 72 hours after vaccination.19 Pertussis vaccine has been documented to cause high fever; severe local reactions at the site of the injection; high pitched screaming and uncontrollable crying; collapse/shock (hypotonic/hyporesponsive episode); lethargy (excessive sleepiness); convulsions with or without fever; and brain inflammation (encephalopathy).20
  • According to the CDC, in 2017, out of a U.S. population of 326 million people, there were 15,808 reported cases of pertussis including 13 deaths, with 4 deaths occurring in infants under age one year.21 Out of 3,663 cases occurring in children from six months of age through six years of age, 44 percent of cases occurred in children who had completed the primary DTaP series22 and there are reported increases in whooping cough disease in the U.S. and other countries, no matter how high the vaccination rate.23
  • As of August 1, 2019, there had been 5,503 claims filed in the federal Vaccine Injury Compensation Program (VICP) for injuries and deaths following pertussis-containing vaccination, including 855 deaths and 4,648 serious injuries.
  • Using the MedAlerts search engine, as of May 31, 2019 there had been 160,672 serious adverse events reported to the Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS) in connection with pertussis-containing vaccines since 1990. Half of those serious pertussis vaccine-related adverse events occurring in children under the age of three. Of these pertussis-vaccine related adverse event reports to VAERS, 3,082 were deaths, with nearly 90% of the deaths occurring in children under three years of age.

IMPORTANT NOTE: NVIC "Quick Facts" is not a substitute for becoming fully informed about Pertussis and the Pertussis vaccine. NVIC recommends consumers read all topics in the Table of Contents, as well as the vaccine manufacturer product information inserts, and speak with one or more trusted health care professionals before making a vaccination decision for yourself or your child. This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice.

Food & Drug Administration (FDA)

Centers for Disease Control (CDC)

National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases (NIAID)

Search for Vaccine Reactions

NVIC hosts MedAlerts, a powerful VAERS database search engine. MedAlerts examines symptoms, reactions, vaccines, dates, places, and more.

Reporting a Vaccine Reaction

Since 1982, the NVIC has operated a Vaccine Reaction Registry, which has served as a watchdog on VAERS. Reporting vaccine reactions to VAERS is the law. If your doctor will not report a reaction, you have the right to report a suspected vaccine reaction to VAERS.

Vaccine Reaction Symptoms & Ingredients

Our Ask 8, If You Vaccinate webpage contains vaccine reaction symptoms and more.

IMPORTANT NOTE: NVIC encourages you to become fully informed about Pertussis and the Pertussis vaccine by reading all sections in the Table of Contents , which contain many links and resources such as the manufacturer product information inserts, and to speak with one or more trusted health care professionals before making a vaccination decision for yourself or your child. This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice.

« Return to Vaccines & Diseases Table of Contents


1 CDC Causes and Transmission. Aug 7, 2017

2 CDC Diagnostic Testing. Aug. 7, 2017

3 CDC. Pertussis - Epidemiology Epidemiology and Prevention of Vaccine-Preventable Diseases (The Pink Book). 13th ed. 2015.

4 CDC Pertussis Causes and Transmission. Aug. 7, 2017

5 Medline Plus. Whooping Cough. July 30, 2018

6 CDC Whooping Cough and the Vaccine (Shot) to Prevent It. Jan 31, 2018

7 CDC Complications. Aug. 7, 2017

8 CDC DTaP (Diphtheria, Tetanus, Pertussis) VIS. Aug. 24, 2018

9 Preidt R. Kids' Whooping Cough and Risk of Epilepsy. WebMD. Nov. 3, 2015

10 CDC Whooping Cough and the Vaccine (Shot) to Prevent It. Jan. 31, 2018

11 CDC Diagnosis and Treatment. Aug. 7, 2017

12 CDC Achievements in Public Health, 1900-1999 Impact of Vaccines Universally Recommended for Children -- United States, 1990-1998. MMWR. Apr. 02, 1999 48(12);243-248

13 Chow MYK, Khandaker G, McIntyre P. Global Childhood Deaths From Pertussis: A Historical Review. Clin Infect Dis. 2016 Dec 1; 63(Suppl 4): S134–S141.

14 CDC Prevention of Pertussis, Tetanus, and Diphtheria with Vaccines in the United States: Recommendations of the Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) MMWR Apr. 27, 2018 / 67(2);1–44

15 FDA Boostrix Product Insert. Apr. 25, 2016

16 FDA Adacel Product Insert Sept. 29, 2017

17 FDA Vaccines Licensed for Use in the United States. May. 9. 2019

18 CDC. Vaccine Excipients & Media Summary (Vaccine Ingredients).Appendix B.The Pink Book, 13th Edition, June 2018

19 Institute of Medicine Committee to Study New Research on Vaccines. DPT Vaccine and Chronic Nervous System Dysfunction: A New Analysis. Executive Summary (pp.1-2) Washington, D.C. The National Academies Press 1994.

20 NVIC. Do You Know How to Recognize a Vaccine Reaction? Aug 27, 2018

21 CDC 2017 Provisional Pertussis Surveillance Report. Jan 5, 2018 66(52)

22 CDC 2017 Provisional Pertussis Surveillance Report. Jan 5, 2018 66(52)

23 CDC Pertussis Frequently Asked Questions Aug 7, 2017

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