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Pertussis

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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, which damage the cilia and cause inflammation (swelling).

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About Pertussis (Whooping Cough)

Pertussis, a respiratory illness commonly known as whooping cough, is a very contagious disease caused by a type of bacteria called Bordetella pertussis. Pertussis is only found in humans and is spread from person to person. Pertussis bacteria attach to the cilia (tiny, hair-like extensions) that line part of the upper respiratory system. The bacteria release toxins, which damage the cilia and cause inflammation (swelling).

Transmission of Pertussis

People with pertussis usually spread the disease by coughing or sneezing while in close contact with others, who then breathe in the pertussis bacteria. Many infants who get pertussis are infected by family members or caregivers who might not even know they have the disease. Symptoms of pertussis usually develop within 5–10 days after being exposed, but sometimes not for as long as 3 weeks.

Symptoms of Pertussis

Because pertussis in its early stages appears to be nothing more than the common cold, it is often not suspected or diagnosed until the more severe symptoms appear. Infected people are most contagious up to about 2 weeks after the cough begins. Antibiotics may shorten the amount of time someone is contagious.

As the disease progresses, the traditional symptoms of pertussis appear and include:

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

Coughing fits can persist for up to 10 weeks or more. In China, pertussis is known as the "100 day cough." Although you are often exhausted after a coughing fit, you usually appear fairly well in-between. Coughing fits generally become more common and severe as the illness continues, and can occur more often at night.

The illness can be milder (less severe) and the typical "whoop" absent in children, teens, and adults who have been vaccinated with a pertussis vaccine. Recovery from pertussis can happen slowly. The cough becomes less severe and less common. However, coughing fits can return with other respiratory infections for many months after pertussis started.

Prevention of Pertussis Transmission

While pertussis vaccines are the most effective tool we have to prevent this disease, no vaccine is 100% effective. If pertussis is circulating in the community, there is a chance that a fully vaccinated person, of any age, can catch this very contagious disease. If you have been vaccinated, the infection is usually less severe. If you or your child develops a cold that includes a severe cough or a cough that lasts for a long time, it may be pertussis. The best way to know is to contact your doctor.

Pertussis (whooping cough) can be diagnosed by taking into consideration if you have been exposed to pertussis and by doing a:

  • History of typical signs & symptoms
  • Physical examination
  • Laboratory test which involves taking a sample of secretions (with a swab or syringe filled with saline) from the back of the throat through the nose
  • Blood test

Treatment

Pertussis is generally treated with antibiotics and early treatment is very important. Treatment may make your infection less severe if it is started early, before coughing fits begin. Treatment can also help prevent spreading the disease to close contacts (people who have spent a lot of time around the infected person).

Treatment after three weeks of illness is unlikely to help because the bacteria are gone from your body, even though you usually will still have symptoms. This is because the bacteria have already done damage to your body.

There are several antibiotics available to treat pertussis. If you or your child is diagnosed with pertussis, your doctor will explain how to treat the infection.

Travel

There are currently no travel recommendations related to pertussis.