This time of year we hear a lot about the flu but not so much about pertussis. That’s unfortunate since this illness can cause serious and potentially deadly complications in infants and children. Pertussis is a highly contagious respiratory disease that causes violent, uncontrollable coughing that makes it hard to breathe. Pertussis is more commonly known as whooping cough because of the "whooping” sound sufferers make. It’s spread just like a common cold — through coughing or sneezing.
Whooping cough usually starts with a runny nose and maybe a mild cough or low-grade fever. Newborns with pertussis can experience apnea — periods of time when they stop breathing. Many babies with pertussis don’t cough at all. Instead, they stop breathing and turn blue.
The rate of whooping cough has more than doubled during the past 25 years. Very young infants are at the highest risk for complications and death from whooping cough. From 2013 to 2014, 13 people died from pertussis in the United States; eight of those deaths occurred in infants less than three months old, and many more babies were hospitalized.
Since infants can’t be vaccinated until they’re eight weeks old, they are particularly vulnerable during their first few weeks of life. When adults and teenagers are infected with a mild case of pertussis, they may not show symptoms and may unknowingly spread the disease to your baby.
About half the time, we can’t identify who was responsible for infecting the baby. The rest of the time, infants are most likely to be infected by an immediate family member, most frequently mothers and siblings.
How to protect your baby from whooping cough
Just as it does for the flu, maternal immunization during pregnancy offers critical protection for newborns. About two weeks after receiving the shot, your body will produce antibodies. These antibodies will cross the placenta, enter your baby’s bloodstream and shield your infant after birth. Getting vaccinated also decreases your chance of catching this illness and passing it on to your baby.
The whooping cough booster shot we use for teenagers and adults (including pregnant women) is called Tdap (pronounced “tee dap”). Tdap protects against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis. The level of antibodies in your body declines over time. This means a woman needs to be immunized during every pregnancy for maximum benefit to each baby.
There’s no harm in receiving multiple Tdap boosters, and there are no risks to the pregnancy. Infants whose moms received the immunization will still produce normal amounts of antibodies when they start receiving their own whooping cough immunizations at two months of age.
Maternal vaccination during pregnancy isn’t a perfect solution. Infants whose mothers received the vaccination during pregnancy can still catch pertussis. But we know that babies whose moms received Tdap vaccinations during the third trimester are much less likely to become ill than those whose moms waited until after delivery.
Decrease your infant's risk of exposure
A second strategy for protecting your baby is called “cocooning.” By making sure people who come into contact with your baby are vaccinated against pertussis, you can reduce the likelihood your newborn will be exposed to the infection. Encourage family members, baby sitters and friends to get a Tdap shot at least two weeks before they meet the baby.
Keep your baby away from people who have cold symptoms or are coughing. Be cautious about taking your baby out into large groups of people, some of whom who may have whooping cough.
Give the gift of health
Help protect your baby by giving friends and family gift cards to local pharmacies that offer Tdap immunizations. Don’t feel guilty about this present! Many adults aren’t up to date on their tetanus shots and even fewer have had a recent Tdap shot. Your gift will enhance their health as well.
I strongly encourage you to ask your doctor for a Tdap vaccination during your third trimester. You and your baby deserve to be healthy during the holidays and beyond.
For more information about pregnancy, labor and delivery, sign up to receive Your Pregnancy Matters email alerts when we publish new stories. You can also make an appointment to see one of our specialists by calling 214-645-8300.