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Immunizations: Whooping Cough (Pertussis)

Pertussis, also called whooping cough, is a serious illness.

Whooping cough is caused by bacteria that attach to the lining of the lungs. It can infect people at any age, but it’s most serious in infants and young children.

Illustration of the pertussis bacteria

Pertussis is known for uncontrollable, violent coughing that often makes it hard to breathe. After coughing, someone with pertussis may need to take deep breaths that result in a “whooping” sound. Pertussis can affect people of all ages. However, it can be very serious, even deadly, for babies less than 1 year old.

Whooping cough can cause pneumonia, which is an infection in the lungs. Half of all babies with whooping cough need care in a hospital. Some even die.

Vaccines can prevent whooping cough

The best way to protect against pertussis is by getting vaccinated.

Learn more about whooping cough vaccines

Pertussis 101

Whooping cough easily spreads from person to person. The bacteria travel through the air on droplets of saliva. The disease can spread to others when an infected person talks, coughs, or sneezes.

Many babies who get pertussis are infected by older siblings, parents, or caregivers who might not even know they have the disease.

Infected people are most contagious up to about two weeks after the cough begins. Getting treatment may shorten how long you can spread the disease. If left untreated, infected people can spread this disease up to three weeks after the cough begins.

At first, a person with whooping cough may seem like they have a cold. Early symptoms include:

  • Runny nose.
  • Low‐grade fever.
  • Slight cough.

After about a week, the cough gets worse. The cough causes other symptoms, such as:

  • Difficulty breathing.
  • Needing to take a deep breath that makes a “whoop” sound.
  • Vomiting.

Babies may not have a cough. Instead, they may stop breathing for several seconds, called apnea. Or they may look like they are gasping for air. Babies are at greatest risk for getting pertussis and then having serious complications from it, including death. That’s why it’s important that pregnant people and everyone around the baby are up to date with their pertussis vaccines.

Antibiotics are used to treat whooping cough. Early treatment is very important. The infection can be less severe if treatment is started before the coughing begins.

If treatment begins three weeks after the illness started, it’s unlikely to be effective. This is because the bacteria will have left the person's body, even though the person still has symptoms. The bacteria already caused damage in the person’s body.

A vaccine is your best protection against catching whooping cough.


Getting vaccinated is the best way to protect yourself and your loved ones against whooping cough. Two different vaccines help protect against whooping cough. Both vaccines also protect against other diseases. Which vaccine you get depends on your age:

  • Diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (DTaP) vaccine is used for children younger than 7 years old.
  • Tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (Tdap) vaccine is used for older children and adults.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends whooping cough vaccines for everyone, but especially:

  • All babies and children.
  • Preteens and teens.
  • Pregnant women.
  • Adults who never received the vaccine.

Children need to get all shots in the series to be fully protected. Find out if you and your children are protected against whooping cough. Check our Wisconsin Department of Health Services (DHS) Wisconsin Immunization Registry.

If you’re worried about cost, your family may be eligible for free vaccines. Read about our Vaccines For Children and Vaccines For Adults programs.

Other prevention
  • Keep babies and other people at high risk for complications from pertussis away from infected people.
  • If you or a member of your household are diagnosed with pertussis, your doctor or local health department may recommend preventive antibiotics for other members of the household. This will help prevent the disease from spreading.
  • Practice good hygiene to prevent the spread of all respiratory illnesses, including pertussis. To practice good hygiene you should:
    • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze.
    • Put your used tissue in the waste basket right away.
    • Cough or sneeze into your upper sleeve or elbow, not your hands, if you don’t have a tissue.
    • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
    • Use an alcohol-based hand rub if soap and water are not available.

Data and statistics

Just for health care providers

Pertussis is a communicable disease. Health care providers must report cases of pertussis.

Pertussis is a Wisconsin Disease Surveillance Category I disease

Report it right away to the patient’s local public health department. Call as soon as you identify a confirmed or suspected case. The health department then notifies the state epidemiologist.

Within 24 hours, submit a case report through one of the following:

Read more about required disease reporting in Wisconsin.

Case reporting and public health guidelines

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Last revised January 3, 2023