Pertussis is a bacterial infection. It is also called whooping cough. The bacteria invade the lining of the respiratory tract, which may cause airway blockage.
Pertussis is highly contagious, and in some cases, serious.
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Pertussis is caused by specific bacteria. It is spread by:
- Inhaling droplets from the sneeze or cough of a person infected with pertussis
- Having direct contact with the mucus of a person infected with pertussis
Factors that may increase the chances of pertussis:
- Not being vaccinated against pertussis
- Living in the same house or working in close contact with someone who has pertussis
Symptoms usually begin within a week or 2 after exposure.
Initial symptoms last about 1-2 weeks. They may include:
- Runny nose and congestion
- Mild fever
- Mild cough
- Watery, red eyes
The second stage of pertussis is called the paroxysmal stage. This stage usually lasts 1-6 weeks, but can last much longer. Symptoms may include:
- Severe coughing
- Long episodes of coughing that start suddenly and may end with a forceful inhale or whoop sound (the sound does not occur in all people)
- In severe cases, coughing may cause a person to have trouble breathing or turn blue from lack of oxygen
- Coughing episodes may result in vomiting
During the final stage, the cough gradually improves over 2-3 weeks. Episodes of coughing can still occur during this stage.
Complications in infants and young children may include:
- Periods of no breathing
- Abdominal and inguinal hernias
- Brain damage (rare)
- Death (rare)
Complications in teens and adults can include weight loss and inability to control urine. Rarely, fainting or rib fractures can occur from severe coughing.
You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.
Your body fluids may be tested. This can be done with:
- Nasal culture
- Throat culture
- Blood tests
Treatment may include:
Pertussis is treated with antibiotics, which keeps the infection from spreading. They are most effective when started in the early stages. They will usually not improve the symptoms or otherwise affect the illness.
Treatment of Symptoms
Antibiotics or cough medications do not prevent coughing. The following steps may help control symptoms and prevent complications:
- Get plenty of rest.
- Use a cool mist vaporizer to loosen mucus and soothe the respiratory tract.
- Avoid irritants that trigger coughing, such as smoke or aerosol sprays.
- Drink plenty of fluids.
This may be necessary for those who develop severe infections. People with pertussis are usually isolated to prevent spreading the disease to others.
The best way to prevent pertussis is with a vaccine. All children (with few exceptions) should receive the DTaP vaccine series. This protects against diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis. Another vaccine called Tdap is routinely given to children aged 11-12 after they have completed the DTaP series of shots. There are also catch-up schedules for children and adults who have not been fully vaccinated. Td or Tdap boosters are given to adults every 10 years.
Pregnant women should have a dose of Tdap during every pregnancy to protect newborns from pertussis.
People in close contact with someone infected with pertussis may be advised to take preventive antibiotics, even if they've been vaccinated. This is especially important in households with members at high risk for severe disease such as children under 1 year of age or people with weak immune systems.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
Healthy Children—American Academy of Pediatrics
Caring for Kids—Canadian Paediatric Society
Public Health Agency of Canada
Immunization schedules. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/schedules/index.html. Accessed January 29, 2021.
Pertussis. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at:http://www.dynamed.com/topics/dmp~AN~T114591/Pertussis. Accessed January 29, 2021.
Pertussis. PEMSoft at EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: http://pemsoft.ebscohost.com/content/PPacCore/UID116325.html. Accessed January 29, 2021.
Pertussis (whooping cough). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/pertussis. Accessed January 29, 2021.
Tdap vaccine. What you need to know Centers for Disease control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/hcp/vis/vis-statements/tdap.pdf. Accessed January 29, 2021.
Last reviewed March 2020 by EBSCO Medical Review Board David L. Horn, MD, FACP Last Updated: 1/29/2021