How Do You Treat Whooping Cough in Adults?

Last Editorial Review: 1/11/2018

Ask the experts

Doctors suggest elderly patients get whooping cough immunizations, as they do for the flu. I thought this was a childhood disease that I'm already immunized for. Why do I need a whooping cough vaccine as an adult?

Doctor's response

Pertussis is not just a childhood disease. Among older children and adults, including those who have previously been vaccinated, infection with the bacteria (Bordetella pertussis) may result in symptoms of bronchitis or upper-respiratory-tract infection. All older children and adults with the disease have a cough which more often than not persists for 2 weeks or more, is paroxysmal (with fits of coughing) and is worse at night. Pertussis may not be diagnosed in adolescents and adults because classic signs, especially the inspiratory whoop, may be absent.

Older preschool children and school-age siblings who are not fully vaccinated and who develop pertussis can be important sources of infection for infants less than 1 year of age. Adults also play an important role in the transmission of pertussis to unvaccinated or incompletely vaccinated infants and young children.

We disagree with you about older people getting routine immunizations for this disease. We do not think that doctors (should) suggest to their elderly patients that they get whooping cough immunizations just as they do for flu."

Routine vaccination against pertussis is, to our knowledge, not currently recommended for persons greater over 6 years of age. It is possible that booster doses of acellular pertussis vaccine will be recommended in the future for persons greater than or equal to 7 years of age.

To reiterate, routine immunization against pertussis is not currently recommended for children over 6, adolescents, or adults. Therefore, it is not recommended that elderly patients get routine whooping cough immunizations.

Medical Author: Carolyn Janet Crandall, M.D.
Medical Editor: William Shiel, MD, FACP, FACR


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