Whooping Cough: What Pregnant Women and New Mothers Need to Know

There have been increased reports of Pertussis or “whooping cough” cases in our area, most recently in the Summit public schools.

For every expectant mother, whooping cough is a concern during the first year of life for the newborn, and especially in the first six months. By giving a booster shot of “TDaP” during the pregnancy (typically at 28 weeks), this allows a mother to increase antibodies against the bacteria and in the first two months of the baby’s life. These antibodies, through breast milk, are the baby’s only immunologic defense against whooping cough because their own antibodies are not significantly developed yet.

Whooping cough can cause serious and sometimes life-threatening complications in babies, such as pneumonia. This is especially true within the first six months of life. It is important to know that many babies with whooping cough don’t cough at all. Instead, it causes them to stop breathing and turn blue. About half of babies who get whooping cough end up in the hospital. The younger the baby is when he/she gets whooping cough, the more likely it is that doctors will need to treat him/her in the hospital. Of those babies who get treatment for whooping cough in a hospital, about one out of four will get pneumonia. One or two out of 100 cases may be fatal. Other complications include violent, uncontrolled shaking, life-threatening pauses in breathing, and brain disease.

Whooping cough is very easily spread from person to person, especially before coughing starts. A person can spread it up to three weeks after symptoms appear. When an infected person talks, coughs or sneezes, the bacteria are released into the air and enter another person’s body through the nose, mouth or throat.

Initial symptoms of whooping cough are like the common cold or flu. They include sneezing, coughing, running nose and fever. Within two weeks, however, the cough becomes more serious with episodes of rapid uncontrollable coughing spasms followed by a high pitched “whoop” sound when the person tries to take a breath.

The coughing spasm may also be followed by gagging or vomiting. These coughing spells can make breathing, eating and sleeping very hard. A final recovery stage with coughing may last weeks or months.

The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) makes the following recommendations for pregnant women and those with newborns at home:

  • Obstetric care providers should administer the Pertussis vaccine to all pregnant patients during pregnancy, as early in the 27–36-weeks-of-gestation window, if possible.
  • This is a safe and important precaution to make sure that each newborn receives the highest possible protection against pertussis at birth.
  • Partners, family members, and infant caregivers should be offered the vaccine if they have not previously been vaccinated. Ideally, all family members should be vaccinated at least two weeks before coming in contact with the newborn.