Pertussis (Whooping Cough) Disease

What is pertussis?

  • Pertussis, also known as whooping cough or the "100-Day-Cough," is a highly contagious disease that can infect people of any age.
  • It is a very easily spread respiratory infection caused by a bacterium called Bordetella pertussis.
  • One of the main symptoms is severe fits of coughing.
  • The disease gets its common name from the "whoop" sound people often make as they try to catch their breath after one of these coughing fits.

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How can I get pertussis?

  • The bacteria that cause whooping cough are spread through:
    • droplets in the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes.
    • direct contact with discharges from the nose or throat of an infected person.
  • Teenagers and adults are the most common source of infection for infants and young children. Teens and adults often do not have the typical whoop or coughing fits when ill with pertussis.

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Who is most at risk for complications from pertussis?

Pertussis can cause serious complications (problems) in:

  • Infants under 1 year of age
  • Pregnant women in their 3rd trimester, as they may pass the infection on to their newborns
  • People who have problems with their immune system
  • People who have underlying medical conditions such as:
    • chronic lung disease
    • severe asthma
    • respiratory insufficiency
    • cystic fibrosis
    • congenital heart disease

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Can I get pertussis more than once?

  • Yes. Infection with pertussis disease does not give lifelong immunity.

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Does the pertussis vaccine give lifelong protection?

  • No. Immunity from the vaccine gradually decreases over time.
  • Protection against severe pertussis illness begins to lessen after about 5 years.

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How do I know if I have pertussis?

  • Pertussis symptoms appear in 3 stages. In the first 2 stages, the person is highly infectious.
  • In the 1st stage, which lasts from 1 - 2 weeks, the symptoms are similar to those of the common cold:
    • runny nose
    • red and watery eyes
    • gradually worsening irritating cough
    • possible sneezing
    • possible low grade fever
  • The 2nd stage lasts 1 - 6 weeks or longer. The symptoms include:
    • series of coughs with no breath in between (the ill person may even stop breathing temporarily)
    • coughing fits end in a high-pitched whoop as the ill person breathes in again
    • coughing spells which often end in vomiting
    • exhaustion from coughing so much
  • In adults, the symptoms of whooping cough may resemble those of bronchitis. Infants under 6 months of age, vaccinated children and adults may not whoop loudly, or even at all.
  • The 3rd and final stage may last for 1 - 2 months. The person is not considered infectious at this stage. During this time, the coughing episodes gradually occur less often, and become less severe.
  • Even after treatment to kill the bacteria, a person may continue to cough as the body repairs the damage to the lining of the breathing passages. The cough may be worse at night. The person may also develop other respiratory infections like pneumonia.

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If I have contact with pertussis, how long does it take to become ill?

  • Symptoms can appear from 6 - 21 days after contact with an infected individual.
  • The average person becomes ill in 9 - 10 days.

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How is pertussis diagnosed?

  • In order to diagnose pertussis, your doctor needs to swab the back of your nasal passages through your nose.

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What can happen if I get pertussis?

  • Pertussis is worst in babies and young children.
    • Babies are at the highest risk for the most serious complications.
    • It can cause:
      • pneumonia (in more than 1/20 children)
      • seizures
      • convulsions
      • brain damage
      • death
  • People with immune system problems may have difficulty fighting the infection.
  • People with underlying medical conditions are especially prone to complications including:
    • weight loss due to vomiting
    • pneumonia
    • severe breathing problems
    • collapsed lung
    • rib fractures
    • an increase in angina pain

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How is pertussis treated?

  • Pertussis can be treated with antibiotics.
    • Take the antibiotics as your doctor prescribes making sure to complete all of the medicine.
    • If side effects from the medication are giving you problems, contact your doctor right away.
  • A person is no longer infectious after taking appropriate antibiotics for 5 days.
    • The antibiotics will not get rid of the coughing fits.
  • Without antibiotics, the person is infectious for 3 weeks from the start of his or her symptoms.

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How can I stop the spread of pertussis?

  • If you think you have pertussis, call your doctor’s office. Tell them about your symptoms and that you may have been exposed to pertussis disease.
    The office needs to arrange appropriate infection control measures for the time of your appointment so that the infection is not passed to others.
  • Someone who has pertussis should stay home from daycare, preschool, school, or work until he or she has taken 5 full days of antibiotics prescribed by the doctor.
  • Without antibiotics, persons infected with pertussis should stay home from daycare, preschool, school or work for 21 days after their symptoms started.

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What can I do to prevent pertussis?

  • Get vaccinated! Infants, teenagers and adults should be vaccinated against whooping cough.
  • For full protection against pertussis, infants and toddlers need 4 doses of pertussis vaccine starting at 2 months of age (combined with the vaccines to protect against other childhood diseases such as diphtheria, tetanus, polio and Haemophilus influenzae b).
  • School-aged children should receive a booster dose when they are between 4 - 6 years of age. Teenagers/ adolescents should receive a booster of ADACEL® at age 14 to 16.
  • The vaccines for infants, children and teenagers are publicly funded as part of the routine immunization program.
  • Adults may not have received any protection from pertussis since they entered kindergarten. A single dose of ADACEL® or BOOSTRIX® is recommended once as either an adolescent or adult booster, after a primary series.
  • This vaccine is only publicly funded for infants, children, teenagers, and adults up to age 64. 
  • Get more information about these vaccines.

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What can I do if I come into contact with someone who has pertussis?

  • Consult with your physician. There are antibiotics that may be recommended to prevent infection if someone is considered at high risk for complications, or of passing the infection on to those at high risk.
  • Monitor your health for symptoms of pertussis for the next 3 - 4 weeks. If symptoms develop, contact your family doctor. Explain that you have been exposed to pertussis and are now ill.
  • If you are not fully immunized against pertussis, call your family doctor and arrange to have your immunizations updated.

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Who can I call for more information?

  • For more information about your exposure to pertussis, or immunization against pertussis, talk to your health care provider, or contact us.

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