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Pertussis Symptoms, Causes, and Risk Factors

Pertussis is very contagious. People who are unimmunized and or living in the same household as an infected individual are at highest risk for infection. Symptoms can vary among the various age groups—from coughing associated with a whooping sound to vomiting after a coughing spell.

What Are the Symptoms of Pertussis?

Classic symptoms of pertussis start with cold-like symptoms (runny nose, tearing eyes, etc.), followed by a harsh repetitive cough and an accompanying whooping sound. A patient with pertussis often vomits following a coughing spell. The cough is present throughout the day and night and may be brought on by acts such as yawning, stretching, laughing, yelling or exercise. It may also be worse at night and can be triggered by the inhalation of steam, mist or other respiratory irritants. A fever is uncommon.

Symptoms of pertussis in adolescents and adults are often less severe than in infants and children. Prior infection or immunization may blunt the severity of illness, but neither creates lifelong immunity. As a result, prolonged cough may be the only symptom in this population. Other symptoms, such as sputum production, runny nose, sweating episodes, and sore throat may also occur. Episodes are often worse at night and interfere with sleep.

What Causes Pertussis?

Pertussis is caused by an infection of Bordetella pertussis.

What Are the Risk Factors?

Pertussis is a highly contagious disease. Living in the same house with an infected person and not being immunized are two major risk factors for infection. People in the same household who have not had their DTaP (Diphtheria, Tetanus and Pertussis in infants) or Tdap (Tetanus, Diphtheria and Pertussis in adults) vaccines are 80 to 100 percent likely to be infected with exposure, but those who have been immunized, but live in the same household, are 20 percent likely to be infected.

When to See Your Doctor

If you have been exposed to someone in your household infected with pertussis, you should consider getting preventative antibiotic therapy. If there has been known exposure and you have cold-like symptoms, see a doctor for testing and possibly starting antibiotic therapy. Anyone with a prolonged persistent debilitating cough should see a physician immediately.

Patients and families should report any signs of dehydration to your doctor immediately. These include dry, sticky mouth, sleepiness or tiredness, thirst, decreased urination or fewer wet diapers, few or no tears when crying, muscle weakness, headache, dizziness or lightheadedness.

    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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