Whooping Cough (Pertussis)
What is whooping cough (pertussis)?
Whooping cough, or pertussis, mainly affects infants and young children. Pertussis
causes intense fits or spells (paroxysms) of coughing. The cough often ends with the
characteristic whooping sound as air is inhaled. Whooping cough causes coughing spells
so bad that it is hard for infants and children to eat, drink, or breathe. These spells
can last for weeks. In infants, it may cause periods of apnea (not breathing).
Whooping cough caused thousands of deaths in the 1930s and 1940s. But, with the advent
of the pertussis vaccine, the rate of disease and death has declined dramatically.
Recent epidemics have occurred in areas where vaccine rates have fallen. Even though
pertussis vaccines are very effective, if pertussis is spreading in the community,
there is a chance that a fully vaccinated person can catch the disease. The vaccine's
protection also wears off over time, meaning that teens and adults who have not had
a booster may help spread the disease during an outbreak.
What causes whooping cough?
Whooping cough is caused by the Bordetella pertussis bacterium. It is spread from person to person through droplets in the air (coughing
and sneezing) and is highly contagious. Once the bacteria are in the child's airways,
swelling of the airways and mucus production starts. Usually, the disease starts like
the common cold, with a runny nose or congestion, sneezing, and sometimes a mild cough
or fever. Usually, after 1 to 2 weeks, severe coughing begins.
What are the facts about whooping cough?
Although the disease can usually be prevented with the vaccine, it is not 100% effective.
Whooping cough is worse for children under 1 year of age and is fatal is some cases.
In the U.S., thousands of new cases are reported each year.
What are the symptoms of whooping cough?
The disease usually takes 1 to 3 weeks to incubate, with the child usually passing
through 3 stages. The following are the most common symptoms of whooping cough, according
to each stage. However, each child may experience symptoms differently. In infants,
the cough may be very hard to hear. Infants may have a pause in breathing called "apnea"
instead of a cough. If you notice this, call your child's healthcare provider or take
your child to the hospital immediately. Symptoms may include:
Catarrhal stage (often lasts 1 to 2 weeks):
Low grade fever
Acute phase (may last for 1 to 6 weeks; can persist to 10 weeks):
Cough gets worse and comes in severe fits
Cough is dry and harsh
Cough ends with a whoop sound on inspiration
Child may vomit with the coughing and appear to be strangling on the vomit
Cough can be started by many factors, including feeding, crying, or playing
Recovery phase (weeks to months):
Vomiting and the whooping cough cease first
The cough usually decreases around the sixth week, but may continue on occasion for
the next 1 to 2 months. Whooping cough used to be called the "100-day cough" because
it can last for weeks to months.
Whooping cough can lead to pneumonia and other complications.
The symptoms of whooping cough may look like other medical conditions. Always see
your child's healthcare provider for a diagnosis.
How is whooping cough diagnosed?
Your child's healthcare provider will review his or her medical history and do a physical
exam. Whooping cough is often confirmed with a culture (mucus, nasal secretions)
taken from the nose.
What is the treatment for whooping cough?
Your child’s healthcare provider will figure out the best treatment based on:
How old your child is
His or her overall health and medical history
How sick he or she is
How well your child can handle specific medicines, procedures, or therapies
How long the condition is expected to last
Your opinion or preference
In some cases, the child may be hospitalized for supportive care and monitoring. Sometimes,
oxygen and intravenous (IV) fluids are needed until the child starts to recover. Your
child's healthcare provider may order antibiotic treatment. Depending on when they
are started, antibiotics may not shorten the course of illness, but they will prevent
the spread of infection to others.
Family members and other people who have been in close contact with the child usually
are started on antibiotic therapy, regardless of whether they have received the vaccine
Other treatment may include the following:
Keeping your child comfortably warm
Feeding your child small, frequent meals
Giving your child plenty of fluids
Preventing situations that cause coughing
How can whooping cough be prevented?
The whooping cough vaccine is routinely given to children in the first year of life.
But, cases of the disease still occur, especially in infants younger than 6 months
of age. Since the immunity from the vaccine declines over time (often 10 to 20 years),
older adults who have been in close contact with a child with whooping cough (such
as a grandparent) are also especially at risk.
According to the CDC, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of cases of
pertussis since the 1980s. The CDC recommends that children get 5 DTaP shots for maximum
protection against pertussis. A DTaP shot is a combination vaccine that protects against
3 diseases: diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis. The first 3 shots are given at 2,
4, and 6 months of age. Between 15 and 18 months of age, the fourth shot is given,
and a fifth shot when a child enters school at 4 to 6 years of age. At regular checkups
for 11- or 12-year-olds, a preteen should get a dose of Tdap. The Tdap booster contains
tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis. All adults over 19 who haven't had the Tdap should
have a dose, as should all pregnant women in their third trimester or every pregnancy, even
if they have had the Tdap before. Adults should then have a Td booster every 10 years
but shouldn't wait to get Tdap if they recently had a Td booster. Always see your child's
healthcare provider for advice.