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Living With Pertussis

Though pertussis is not a lifelong illness, it can be debilitating and have a relatively prolonged course. Before widespread immunization programs in the developed world, pertussis was one of the most common infectious causes of morbidity and death. Fortunately, universal childhood vaccinations reduced the number of cases of pertussis in infants and children dramatically. However, the number of adults with pertussis has recently started to rise, probably because immunity from the vaccine may decrease with age.

What to Expect

Pertussis can last up to 3 to 6 months.

In infants, the illness can be severe and even fatal. Infants commonly present with apneas, gasping, gagging with coughing, and worse complications, ultimately resulting in death.
School-age children will often present with the classic symptoms discussed earlier.

Older children and adults often present with a prolonged cough but may also present with complications of dizziness, sleep disturbances, and even rib fractures.

Managing Pertussis

Prevention is the first and most important step. Childhood immunization reduces the risk of catching pertussis, and universal immunization of all infants can limit exposure by reducing the overall number of cases. Because the risk of transmission of B pertussis within households is high, treating with antibiotics is widely recommended for household contacts of pertussis cases.

If recognized before the harsh coughing phase, early treatment can help shorten the course. Otherwise management is typically supportive, as symptoms will gradually improve with time. Cough medicine is not recommended and likely will not be helpful.

A vaccine called Tdap can help protect adolescents and adults against three diseases: tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis. Because immunity from the childhood vaccine decreases over time, a "booster" vaccine is recommended for all adults 19-65 years, and for older adults who will be in contact with babies less than 12 months old.

Tips for managing pertussis and reducing the risk of spreading it:

  1. Follow the schedule for giving antibiotics exactly as your doctor prescribed.
  2. Try your best to keep your home free of any irritants that can trigger coughing, such as smoke, dust, and chemical fumes.
  3. Use a clean, cool mist vaporizer to help loosen secretions and soothe the cough.
  4. Practice good handwashing.
  5. Drink plenty of fluids, including water, juices, and soups and eat fruits to prevent dehydration (lack of fluids).
  6. Eat small, frequent meals to help prevent vomiting (if occurring).

Finding Support

With the support of your doctor, you can be made aware of the symptoms that you need to look out for in case complications arise. Depending on how debilitating your illness is, your doctor may provide a letter to the school or employer regarding your illness to facilitate flexibility in your work or school duties or schedule. Many people are still able to attend work and school with the illness once they are no longer contagious.

The Lung Association recommends patients and caregivers join our Living with Lung Disease Support Community to connect with others facing this disease. You can also call the Lung Association's Lung HelpLine at 1-800-LUNGUSA to talk to a trained respiratory professional who can help answer your questions and connect you with additional support.

    This content was developed in partnership with the CHEST Foundation, the philanthropic arm of the American College of Chest Physicians.

    Page Last Updated: March 13, 2018

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