Understanding Pertussis

What is Pertussis and Who Gets it?

Pertussis—called whopping cough—is a respiratory illness caused by bacteria. It is very contagious and is most dangerous for infants and young children. Anyone can get pertussis, but most people in the U.S. are immunized before entering school and receive a booster vaccine during adolescence to prevent them from getting the disease. Most cases in the U.S. now are in adolescents and adults.

The infection may start out like a common cold—with mild fever and a runny nose—but symptoms get severe after a couple of weeks. People with pertussis get violent coughing fits that last several minutes and typically end with a high-pitched "whoop" sound as they try to take a breath. During the coughing fits, you may have difficulty breathing, you may vomit or choke, and your lips and nails may turn blue from lack of oxygen. You may even lose consciousness briefly.

Pertussis usually lasts for six weeks. Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics if the illness is diagnosed early in the course of the illness. Cough syrups and drops will not work on pertussis. They will not make your symptoms improve or shorten the length of the illness.

How Serious is Pertussis?

Pertussis is most dangerous for infants under age 1, who have the most complications from the infection and the highest risk of dying from pertussis. Complications for infants can include dehydration, anorexia (caused by the inability to eat because of coughing), pneumonia, severe ear infections, swelling of the brain and seizures. Most children who die from pertussis are under age 1 and are not yet completely immunized from the disease.

Adolescents and adults also can have complications that usually are the result of the severe coughing but may be serious enough for them to be hospitalized. They can include cracked ribs, pneumonia, and difficulty breathing, sleeping or eating.

What Causes Pertussis and How is it Spread?

Pertussis is a respiratory infection caused by the bacteria Bordetella pertussis. It is highly contagious, which means it spreads easily from person to person. Infants may catch pertussis from a parent or sibling who do not know they are infected.

You can catch pertussis if you breathe in droplets of the bacteria that are in the air after a person with whooping cough sneezes or coughs. You can also catch it if you touch a surface where the bacteria is resting.

If you know someone who has pertussis and have been around that person, talk to your doctor. If someone in your family or household is diagnosed with pertussis, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics for everyone else in your family or household to prevent the spread of the disease before severe symptoms appear.