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Whooping Cough (Pertussis)

This fact sheet answers frequently asked questions about pertussis (also called “whooping cough”).

Pertussis (also called “whooping cough”) is a respiratory illness caused by bacteria. It spreads from person to person easily. A person with pertussis can have severe coughing spasms that last for weeks.

The basics

Is pertussis dangerous?

Pertussis is usually mild in older children and adults. However, it can be dangerous for infants and young children. Although rare, pertussis can cause serious health and breathing problems. Issues such as pneumonia, seizures, and swelling of the brain are more likely in children under 6 months old.

How is it spread?

The bacteria that causes pertussis lives in the nose, mouth, and throat. It sprays into the air when an infected person sneezes, coughs, or talks. People nearby can then breathe in the germs. Pertussis spreads through droplets or direct contact with an infected persons' mucus or saliva. People with pertussis can spread the disease starting two weeks before until three weeks after their cough starts. Treatment with appropriate antibiotics can make a person non-contagious after five days.

Who gets pertussis?

Anyone can get pertussis, but it is increasing among infants and youth aged 11-19 years. These adolescents and young adults can be a source of infection for other infants and under-immunized children.

Symptoms

What are the symptoms of pertussis?

The illness starts with cold-like symptoms such as a runny nose, sneezing, and mild cough. The cough worsens over a one to two week period. The person may develop uncontrolled coughing spasms followed by a high-pitched whooping noise when inhaling or vomiting. The coughing fits usually last one to six weeks. 

Prevention

Can you prevent pertussis?

A vaccine is the best way to protect against pertussis. The usual schedule for infants is a series of four doses of DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus, and acellular pertussis vaccine) given at 2, 4, 6, and 15–18 months of age. Doctors recommend a fifth shot, or booster dose, between age 4 and 6 years, unless someone got the fourth dose late (after the fourth birthday). 

Because immunity to diphtheria and tetanus decreases with time, you need boosters of Td every ten years.

If I had pertussis in the past, can I get it again?

A person who had pertussis in the past may have some immunity, but this may weaken over time. People exposed to pertussis should see their healthcare provider for antibiotics, even if they had the disease in the past. Children less than 7 years old should have their immunization records reviewed if exposed to pertussis. Adolescents and adults who have never received a booster dose of DTaP vaccine should talk to their healthcare provider about getting a shot. 

Treatment

How is pertussis treated?

Treatment with antibiotics may shorten the time a person is contagious and make the illness less severe if started early. Rest and plenty of fluids also help most people feel better. Anyone who has been in close contact to a person with pertussis should contact their healthcare provider immediately.

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