​What is Pertussis?

Pertussis, also known as whooping cough, is a highly contagious respiratory disease caused by the bacteria Bordetella pertussis

How is it spread?

Pertussis spreads from person to person through respiratory droplets. A person infected with pertussis usually spreads the disease to another person by coughing or sneezing or when spending a lot of time near others with shared breathing space. Infected people are most contagious up to about 2 weeks after the cough begins. Antibiotics may shorten the amount of time someone is contagious. 

Many babies who get pertussis are infected by older siblings, parents, or caregivers who might not even know they have the disease. 

What Are the Symptoms of Pertussis?

Early symptoms. 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 (a pause in breathing). Early symptoms can last for 1 to 2 weeks.

Later-stage symptoms. As the disease progresses beyond the 1 to 2 weeks, the traditional symptoms of pertussis may appear and include:

  • Paroxysms (fits) of many, rapid coughs followed by a high-pitched "whoop" sound
  • Vomiting (throwing up) during or after coughing fits
  • Exhaustion (tiredness) after coughing fits

Pertussis can cause violent and rapid coughing, over and over, until the air is gone from the lungs of the symptomatic individual. When there is no more air in the lungs, the person is forced to inhale with a loud "whooping" sound. This extreme coughing can cause the person to throw up and be very tired. Although the individual is often exhausted after a coughing fit, he/she usually appear fairly well in between. Coughing fits generally become more common and bad as the illness continues, and can occur more often at night. The coughing fits can go on for up to 10 weeks or more. The infection is generally milder in teens and adults, especially among those who have received the pertussis vaccine.

Recovery from pertussis can happen slowly. The cough becomes milder and less common. However, coughing fits can return with other respiratory infections for many months after the pertussis infection started.

What Are the Complications?

Pertussis 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 and may require treatment for pneumonia (lung infection), convulsions (violent, uncontrolled shaking), apnea, encephalopathy (disease of the brain), or die.

Teens and adults can also get complications from pertussis. They are usually less serious in this age group, especially for those who have been vaccinated with a pertussis vaccine.

How is Pertussis Treated?

Health care providers generally treat pertussis with antibiotics. Early treatment is important, making your infection less serious and can also help prevent the spread of the disease to close contacts. A person is no longer contagious after 21 days of coughing without antibiotic treatment or after 5 days of antibiotic treatment. It is important that infected individuals complete the full course of antibiotics!

Is Pertussis Preventable?

The best way to prevent pertussis is to get vaccinated. The combination diphtheria, tetanus, and acellular pertussis (DTaP) vaccine is recommended for babies and children at 2 months, 4 months, 6 months, and 15 to 18 months of age with another booster at 4-6 years of age.

Vaccine protection for these diseases fades over time. The tetanus, diphtheria, and acellular pertussis (Tdap) booster vaccine is recommended for:

  • Preteens, teens, and adults every 10 years
  • Women of child-bearing age before, during, or immediately after pregnancy 
  • Anyone who has contact with pregnant women, newborns, or infants
  • Children who never started or finished their DTaP series can get a Tdap booster as early as age 7
  • Adults who have never had a Tdap booster

The pertussis vaccine, along with other childhood vaccines, is one of the required vaccines for school entry (Senate Bill 277 effective 2016).

Source:  CDC, Shots for School