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Pertussis (Whooping Cough)

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Pertussis, a respiratory illness commonly known as whooping cough, is a very contagious disease caused by a type of bacteria called Bordetella pertussis. These bacteria attach to the cilia (tiny, hair-like extensions) that line part of the upper respiratory system. The bacteria release toxins (poisons), which damage the cilia and cause airways to swell.

  • Symptoms
  • Transmission
  • Prevention

Pertussis symptoms have two stages. The first stage (which lasts 1 to 2 weeks) begins like a cold, with a runny nose, sneezing, mild fever, and cough which slowly gets worse. The second stage is marked by uncontrolled coughing spells and a whooping noise (in young children) when the person inhales. During severe coughing spells, a person may vomit or become blue in the face from lack of air. Between coughing spells, the person often appears to be well. The coughing spells may be so bad that it is hard for babies to eat, drink of breath. This coughing stage may last for 6 weeks or more. Adults, teens, and vaccinated children often have milder symptoms that mimic bronchitis or asthma. Some infants may only have apnea (failure to breath), and may die from this.

The germs that cause pertussis 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 germs. Touching a tissue or sharing a cup used by someone with pertussis can also spread the disease. The first symptoms usually appear about 7 to 10 days after a person is exposed. Infants often get pertussis from older children or adults.

Who gets pertussis?

Pertussis is most common among infants less than a year old, but anyone can get it. Pertussis can be hard to diagnose in very young infants, teens and adults because their symptoms often look like a cold with a nagging cough.

Yes, there is a vaccine to prevent pertussis. It is given along with diphtheria and tetanus vaccines in the same shot (called DTaP or Tdap). Five doses of vaccine, given in a series starting at 2 months of age, are needed to protect a child from pertussis. An adolescent and adult booster vaccine is recommended for persons 11-12 years and older. The vaccine works for most children, but it wears off after a number of years.

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