Pertussis (Whooping Cough)
Pertussis or whooping cough is a highly contagious bacterial disease that causes severe, uncontrollable coughing fits that can leave the individual "whooping" for deep breaths afterwards. It affects people of all ages, but is especially dangerous and even fatal for young children and infants.
Last Updated: February 21, 2024

It is caused by the bacteria Bordetella pertussis. It is easily transmitted from person to person through infectious droplets produced from coughing or sneezing. People become infected by inhaling these droplets, or touching surfaces with infected droplets and subsequently touching their eyes, nose, or mouth.

Symptoms usually develop around 5-10 days after infection, but can take as long as 3 weeks to appear. Infected individuals are most contagious during the first two weeks of symptoms. During the first 1-2 weeks of symptoms, an individual will experience symptoms resembling the common cold, such as fever, runny nose, and a mild cough. Among infants, apnea (or pauses in breathing) is typical. When the disease worsens, an individual will experience paroxysmal coughing--many, rapid, violent coughs followed by a "whoop" as the individual struggles to breathe and recover. Vomiting and exhaustion commonly follow these paroxysmal coughs. This stage of the disease can last for 1-6 weeks and has been documented to last as long as 10 weeks. The worse the condition, the more frequent the paroxysms, which would also become more common at night. Among babies, paroxysmal coughing is not very common; instead, during this stage, apnea is more common, becoming evident when the babies turn "blue" or cyanotic. During recovery, coughing fits can still return, although milder and less common, and may persist for many months.

Antibiotics are recommended for treatment and can actually shorten the duration of the disease, as well as the time that an individual can infect other people. That is why it is very important to see a doctor once an individual develops a cough that keeps worsening or does not go away--or any of the other symptoms mentioned. Giving cough medications or cough syrups is NOT recommended.

Pertussis is preventable through vaccination. The vaccine is given as a combination that also covers for diphtheria and tetanus. The vaccine is widely available and routinely given during infancy, with booster doses throughout childhood. Vaccination can prevent infection, or in areas where the disease is still widespread, can make the course of disease milder. To prevent the spread of pertussis or getting infected, proper cough and sneeze etiquette should be practiced at all times and taught to children regularly (e.g. cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing with a tissue, handkerchief, or one's upper sleeve or elbow--and NOT with your bare hand; dispose of used tissue properly; wash your hands with soap and water or alcohol-based sanitizer thoroughly for 20 seconds). As much as possible, at home, individuals displaying symptoms (e.g. coughs or colds) should be isolated from other people.
Last Updated: February 21, 2024