Pertussis (whooping cough)

  • Pertussis, also known as whooping cough, is a highly contagious respiratory disease. It is caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis. Pertussis is known for uncontrollable, violent coughing which often makes it hard to breathe. After cough fits, someone with pertussis often needs to take deep breaths, which result in a “whooping” sound. Pertussis can affect people of all ages, but can be very serious, even deadly, for babies less than a year old.

    The best way to protect against pertussis is by getting vaccinated.

    Pertussis spreads from person to person by exposure to another person’s respiratory secretions by coughing, sneezing, or sharing breathing space. Many babies who get pertussis are infected by older siblings, parents, or caregivers who might not even know they have the disease.

    Infected people are most contagious up to about 2 weeks after the cough begins. Antibiotics may shorten the amount of time someone is contagious.

    While pertussis vaccines are the most effective tool to prevent this disease, no vaccine is 100% effective. When pertussis circulates in the community, there is a chance that a fully vaccinated person, of any age, can catch this disease. If you have gotten the pertussis vaccine but still get sick, the infection is usually not as bad.

    Pertussis (whooping cough) can cause serious illness in babies, children, teens, and adults. Symptoms of pertussis usually develop within 5 to 10 days after you are exposed. Sometimes pertussis symptoms do not develop for as long as 3 weeks. The disease usually starts with cold-like symptoms and maybe a mild cough or fever. In babies, the cough can be minimal or not even there. Babies may have a symptom known as “apnea.” Apnea is a pause in the child’s breathing pattern. Pertussis is most dangerous for babies. About half of babies younger than 1 year who get the disease need care in the hospital.

    During the first few weeks pertussis has the appearance of a common cold:

    • Mild cough
    • Fever
    • Runny nose
    • Low-grade fever
    • Apnea – a pause in breathing in babies

    As the disease progresses:

    • Paroxysms (fits) of many, rapid coughs followed by a high-pitched “whooping” sound
    • Vomiting during coughing
    • Exhaustion after coughing fits

    The “whoop” is often not there if you have milder (less serious) disease. The infection is generally milder in teens and adults, especially those who have gotten the pertussis vaccine.

    Healthcare providers generally treat pertussis with antibiotics and early treatment is very important. Treatment may make your infection less serious if you start it early, before coughing fits begin. Treatment can also help prevent spreading the disease to close contacts (people who have spent a lot of time around the infected person). Pertussis (whooping cough) can cause serious and sometimes deadly complications in babies and young children, especially those who have not received all recommended pertussis vaccines. About half of babies younger than 1 year old who get pertussis need care in the hospital. The younger the baby, the more likely they will need treatment in the hospital. Students diagnosed with pertussis are excluded from school until a five day course of antibiotics has been completed.

    To protect yourself and other children and adults you should stay current on your pertussis vaccinations. If you have a cough that is not going away or getting worse or if you are interested in vaccination please talk with your healthcare provider. More information can be found at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.