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    Whooping cough word cloud

    Pertussis, also called “whooping cough,” is a disease caused by respiratory bacteria. It begins like a cold, with a runny nose, sneezing, mild fever and cough that slowly gets worse, and usually starts to occur in strong “coughing fits.” This type of coughing may last for six or more weeks. There is generally no fever during this time.

    How Pertussis is spread

    The pertussis bacteria live in the nose, mouth and throat, and are sprayed into the air when an infected person sneezes, coughs or talks. Other people nearby can then inhale the bacteria. Touching a tissue or sharing a cup used by someone with pertussis can also spread the disease.

    The first symptoms usually appear within five days to 21 days after a person is infected.

    nurse with coughing girl

    Pertussis is usually mild in older children and adults, but it often causes serious problems in babies. Pertussis can cause breathing problems (apnea), pneumonia and swelling of the brain (encephalopathy) -- which can lead to seizures and brain damage. Pertussis can also cause death (rarely), especially in babies.

    Pertussis is most common among babies, but anyone can get it. Pertussis can be hard to diagnose in babies, teens and adults because their symptoms often look like a cold with a nagging cough. Babies often get pertussis from older children or adults.

    A doctor may diagnose a patient with pertussis because of their symptoms. To confirm the diagnosis, the doctor will swab the back of the nose for laboratory testing. It is important to remember laboratory tests may be negative even if a patient has pertussis.

    boy getting vaccinated
    Pertussis (Whooping Cough) laptop screen



    In young children, coughing fits are often followed by a whooping sound as they try to catch their breath. After coughing, a person may have difficulty catching their breath, vomit or become blue in the face from lack of air. The coughing spells may be so bad that it is hard for babies to eat, drink or breathe. The cough is often worse at night, and cough medicines usually do not help reduce the cough. Between coughing spells, the person often appears to be well.




    baby in incubator

    Some babies may only have apnea (failure to breathe), but they can die from this.

    Adults, teens and vaccinated children often have milder symptoms that mimic bronchitis or asthma.

    Pertussis may be prevented in household members and close contacts of a person with pertussis by treating them with antibiotics, even if they have been vaccinated. Vaccination of children in early infancy may also prevent pertussis. Because vaccine protection begins to fade in older children and adults, new vaccines (called Tdap) have been developed against pertussis for these age groups.

    To protect babies from being exposed to pertussis, families who have -- or are expecting -- a baby and people who work with babies should consult with their doctor about receiving this vaccine. Most hospitalizations and deaths occur in children less than three months of age. When possible, babies should be kept away from people who are coughing. Babies with any coughing illness should be seen by a doctor.

    In addition to vaccination, it is helpful to get plenty of rest and fluids. People hospitalized with severe pertussis may need special treatments to help them through prolonged periods of coughing.


    Printable fact sheet




    This page was last modified on January 27, 2017


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