DEAR MAYO CLINIC:
Is it true that adults should be vaccinated against pertussis? I thought that was a childhood disease. Hasn’t it basically been eliminated in the United States?
Now more than ever, it is important for everyone — including adults — to be vaccinated against pertussis. There is an effective vaccine against pertussis, also known as whooping cough. But the immunity generated by the vaccine weakens over time. When enough people in the population become susceptible to infection, an epidemic can occur. These epidemics are not as severe as was seen in the pre-vaccine era, but they still affect a lot of people.
Pertussis is a highly contagious bacterial infection that causes a severe, hacking cough. The coughing spells can be followed by a high-pitched intake of breath that sounds like a “whoop” and gives the disease its name. Coughing spasms can cause extreme fatigue and vomiting and make breathing difficult. In babies, the disease can be very serious because their airways are tiny and they may have trouble breathing in enough oxygen during coughing spells. Severe coughing spells can also generate small hemorrhages in the eyes and brain.