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Pertussis (whooping cough)

What is pertussis (whooping cough)?

Pertussis (whooping cough) is a disease caused by bacteria (Bordetella pertussis) that live in the mouth, nose and throat. Pertussis can cause severe coughing, vomiting and troubles breathing. It is called whooping cough because it causes the infected person to make a loud "whooping" sound during a severe coughing spell. Pertussis usually affects children.

Who can get pertussis?

Anyone can get pertussis. People most at risk include:

  • infants and young children
  • adults who have weakened immune systems.

Pertussis is most severe in infants younger than 1 year old.

How is pertussis spread?

Pertussis can spread from person to person by direct contact with an infected person's saliva, sputum or nasal mucous. Pertussis can spread to an uninfected person by breathing air into which an infected person has coughed or sneezed.

A child with pertussis can spread the disease for about one week after exposure until about three weeks after the severe coughing starts.

What are the symptoms of pertussis?

Symptoms of pertussis include:

  • sneezing, runny nose, fever and mild cough (like a cold)
  • violent coughing spells that can lead to problems eating, drinking and breathing
  • a "whooping" sound during a coughing spell
  • vomiting after a coughing spell.

Coughing spells can last for weeks. It can take seven to 10 days from when the child is exposed until symptoms appear. Symptoms begin like the common cold. One to two weeks later the severe coughing spells begin. The coughing spells usually last one to six weeks but can last longer. After the coughing, recovery is about two to three weeks.

How is pertussis found?

The health care provider may do tests to identify the bacteria.

How is pertussis prevented (DTaP vaccine)?

The DTaP vaccine (shot) can prevent diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis. The vaccine is made from the weakened or dead germs (or part of the germs) that cause those three diseases. These germs won't cause your child to get any of the three diseases. The vaccine helps him or her build antibodies, which destroy the vaccine germs. This helps protect your child against the disease.

How is pertussis treated?

Your health care provider will talk with you about how best to treat your or your child's case of pertussis. The treatment will depend on how severe the disease is. In general, antibiotics (medicine) are used to kill the bacteria.

What are the possible side effects of pertussis?

Pertussis can lead to pneumonia, seizures, brain damage and death.

How long should infected people stay home from work or school?

Your child needs to stay home from school until he or she is no longer able to spread the disease. You need to stay home from work or school until you are no longer able to spread the disease.

Warren Shepard, MD, discusses why he has seen more cases of whooping cough in recent years. He also recalls when his son had pertussis.

Read transcript.

Source: Allina Health's Patient Education Department, Pertussis (Whooping Cough), ic-ahc-13269, Information adapted from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Reviewed by: Allina Health's Patient Education Department
First Published: 09/15/2004
Last Reviewed: 09/15/2004