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Whooping cough


Whooping cough is a serious illness caused by germs (bacteria) that get into the lungs and breathing tubes. It is called whooping cough because, when people have it, they cough a lot, and, in between coughs, they make a “whoop” sound when gasping for air. Whooping cough is also called pertussis, because it is caused by a bacteria named Bordetella pertussis.

Anyone can catch whooping cough

Whooping cough is spread through the air by coughing and sneezing. It is very contagious, spreading easily from person to person. The bacteria lives in the saliva in the mouth and the mucus in the nose. When infected people cough or sneeze, they can spread the germs to anyone around them.

A serious illness

Whooping cough can trigger coughing so severe that it causes vomiting and broken ribs. The cough can last for weeks or months. Whooping cough can be fatal.

Whooping cough is most dangerous for babies. More than half of babies younger than one year old who get whooping cough end up in the hospital. Babies can die from whooping cough or have serious health problems, such as seizures or brain damage.

You and your child could be at risk

Although whooping cough is most dangerous for babies, anyone can become seriously ill from it. In recent years, there has been an increase in the number of infants with whooping cough, because resistance to the disease in adults has been fading.

How to protect yourself and others

You can protect yourself and others by getting vaccinated. All babies, children, and teens should get vaccinated as part of their regular checkups. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that adults 19 years or older who did not receive Tdap as a preteen or teen should receive a single dose of Tdap. Pregnant women should receive a dose of Tdap during each pregnancy, preferably at 27 through 36 weeks. This helps increase the amount of disease protection passed to the baby.

The Tdap vaccine gets its name from the fact that it protects against 3 diseases— tetanus (lockjaw), diphtheria, and pertussis (whooping cough). Diphtheria, like pertussis, is spread through person-to-person contact. Diphtheria is rare in the United States as a result of widespread vaccination against the disease.

Tetanus is a serious infection caused by a germ called Clostridium tetani that gets into a wound and releases a toxin that affects the brain and nervous system. It causes stiffness in the muscles and in some cases can lead to death.


St. Jude offers free Tdap vaccinations for parents and other adult caregivers. If you have questions about the Tdap vaccine or how you can get the shot, talk to your doctor or the staff in your child’s primary St. Jude clinic.



This document is not intended to take the place of the care and attention of your personal physician or other professional medical services. Our aim is to promote active participation in your care and treatment by providing information and education. Questions about individual health concerns or specific treatment options should be discussed with your physician.

St. Jude complies with health care-related federal civil rights laws and does not discriminate on the basis of race, color, national origin, age, disability, or sex.

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