Some experts blame a decline in childhood vaccines. But an uptick in the disease may have more to do with teens and adults who don't realize they are no longer protected.
Jolee Kuehl may not remember much now but when she was just three weeks old whooping cough invaded her tiny body and almost ended her life.
"Every time she would cough she would start to cough and then just stop breathing," said Mick Kuehl, father. "Terrifying, not knowing if she was going to make it."
What seemed to start out as a cold grew worse. Jolee coughed so hard she literally stopped breathing. She ended up in intensive care at the University of Chicago Medical Center.
Mick and Crista Kuehl never suspected whooping cough. But then came a bigger shock.
"Unfortunately, the person that she caught it from was me," said Crista Kuehl, mother.
Crista Keuhl says she was diagnosed with bronchitis and then aggravated asthma. It turns out she probably had whooping cough also known as pertussis. Doctors suspect her immunity to the infectious disease waned, meaning the vaccine she got years ago basically petered out.
"I don't know how I got it," said Crista Kuehl.
The bacterial illness is easily spread by coughing or sneezing. It starts with symptoms similar to a common cold. But after one to two weeks the cough can become more severe and violent.
In infants and children the illness can be devastating. Babies can build up immunity around six months after they have had three rounds of vaccines.
Four-month-old Judith Martinez was recently rushed to Children's Memorial Hospital when relentless coughing fits turned her blue. Her mother admits to missing one scheduled pertussis vaccine and says she never imagined it would put her baby's life in danger.
"So now I think they are very important," said Kikey Martinez, mother.
Experts say adults can unknowingly carry the germ and spread it.
"You really have to protect these young infants from getting pertussis by vaccinating the individuals that are living with them or in close contact with them," said Dr. Tina Tan, Pediatric Infectious Diseases, Children's Memorial Hospital.
Pertussis outbreaks can crop up every three to five years. But no one knows exactly why it seems to be hitting harder than ever.
"We are learning that the actual reservoir in the community for pertussis are adolescents and young adults," said Dr. Kenneth Alexander, Pediatric Infectious Diseases, University of Chicago Medical Center.
Dr. Alexander says better detection and more international travel could have something to do with a rise in cases. Also, someone who id infected could go weeks, spreading the bug before being diagnosed.
"I don't think there are data that show that people are losing immunity any faster…But the vaccine is not perfect and the bug itself is very smart and it somehow evades the immune system in time," said Dr. Alexander.
Adults and teens can become susceptible to whooping cough five to ten years after their last pertussis vaccine. A combination booster shot is now recommended every 10 years for adolescents and adults.
The Kuehl family hopes their story underscores the need for adult vaccination.
"Anyone who saw what she went through would stand in line to get their vaccine," said Mick Kruehl.
If caught early, whooping cough can be successfully treated with antibiotics.Both babies in our report are now healthy and doing well.
Centers for Disease Control Prevention
National Institutes of Health
Illinois Dept. of Public Health