The Upshot Series #12

Asthma and Whooping Cough don’t Mix

Published on: May 2, 2022


While asthma can be a relatively well-controlled disease, too many people of all ages still live with constant anxiety over their respiratory health. This World Asthma Day, Sanofi is raising awareness of the link between whooping cough and asthma so more people can help protect themselves with vaccination.

Pertussis is a disease known as whooping cough due to the distinctive sound of its main symptom. Doctors and hospitals worry about cyclical pertussis outbreaks as they can place an extra burden on health systems with severely sick babies.1 But pertussis is also a stealthy disease in adolescents and adults because the infection often goes undiagnosed, and yet can land people in hospital.4

A potentially life-threatening infection for asthmatics

“Many people with whooping cough just think they have a long-lasting cough or stubborn cold,” says Dominika Kovacs, Global Franchise Head of Polio, Pertussis and Hib (PPH) Vaccines at Sanofi.  “The problem is that they are transmitting the pertussis bacteria to others, including people at risk. Too often, people are unknowingly passing whooping cough on to asthmatics, for example, who are much more likely to end up in the hospital.”

The incidence of whooping cough is significantly underreported, and scientists estimated that it’s 50 to more than 100 times undercounted, depending on a person’s age.2,3 “This adds up to much more disease caused by pertussis than we imagine,” notes Denis Macina, Lead Epidemiologist in pertussis at Sanofi.

Whooping cough is extremely contagious, moving easily within families and communities. But because the infection is less recognizable in many adults, people go on living their lives and spreading the disease.
Denis Macina

Denis Macina

Lead Epidemiologist in pertussis, Vaccines, Sanofi

And the detrimental impact on health is exponential for asthmatic adults who are up to 4 times more likely to become infected than adults with no underlying conditions.4 And if you catch pertussis and have asthma, you’re in fact 40% more likely to need hospitalization than people who don’t have asthma.4

“It’s really double trouble for asthmatics: you’re much more likely to catch the infection and if you do, you’re much more likely to end up in the hospital. And remember that we’re talking about a disease that is quite simply preventable with vaccination,” confirms Dominika.

A disease that we can prevent with vaccines

Even though rapid tests to detect whooping cough are available – similar to the nasal swabs used for COVID-19 – they are not widely used.  This means that most of the time, pertussis is transmitted without detection, putting people with respiratory health problems at risk. Vaccination is a useful protective measure, not only for babies and children, but people of all ages including asthmatics.

Vaccination against pertussis is long-proven effective and is included in booster vaccines that also include tetanus, diphtheria, and polio inoculations.  Public health authorities in many countries recommend getting at least one adult booster.  Ideally, for optimum protection, adults can also consider getting a booster every 10 years, which helps protect both individuals and entire societies from these diseases’ resurgence and outbreaks.

The trouble is that people don’t often think about getting their boosters. And yet, getting vaccinated helps strengthen protection against infectious disease and has a positive impact on public health.
Dominika Kovacs

Dominika Kovacs

Global Franchise Head of Polio, Pertussis and Hib (PPH) Vaccines, Sanofi

Beyond asthmatics, people who suffer from other respiratory conditions like COPD, and older adults are also at greater risk of pertussis. “We’re living in societies with ageing populations which means that, without improved vaccination coverage and over time, we could start seeing a heavier burden of pertussis in our health care systems,” adds Denis.

This year’s World Asthma Day theme is “Closing Gaps in Asthma Care.” One of the easiest steps anyone can take to contribute to that goal would be to think about their booster status and use the opportunity of this day to get their shots up to date as needed.


Explore more

Whooping cough (Pertussis)

Understanding Vaccination in Pregnancy

The Next Breath: Advancing Knowledge to Transform Asthma Care


  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Whooping Cough is Deadly for Babies. Accessed March 3, 2022.
  2. Chen CC, Balderston McGuiness C, Krishnarajah G, Blanchette CM, Wang Y, Sun K, Buck PO. Estimated incidence of pertussis in people aged <50 years in the United States. Hum Vaccin Immunother. 2016 Oct 2;12(10):2536-2545. doi: 10.1080/21645515.2016.1186313. Epub 2016 May 31. PMID: 27246119; PMCID: PMC5085009 Accessed March 3, 2022.
  3. Masseria, C., Krishnarajah, G. The estimated incidence of pertussis in people aged 50 years old in the United States, 2006–2010. BMC Infect Dis 15, 534 (2015). Accessed March 3, 2022.
  4. Buck PO, MeyersJL, Gordon L-D, et al. Economic burden of diagnosed pertussis among individuals with asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in the USA: an analysis of administrative daims. Epidemiol Infect. 2017;2109-2121. Accessed March 3, 2022.
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