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Key Facts

  • Pertussis is a highly contagious respiratory infection characterized by a "whooping cough.”
  • It most commonly occurs in young children, though it can infect any age group, and is particularly risky for infants.
  • Infection can occur throughout the year, but in North America, its activity peaks in summer and fall.
  • Pertussis vaccines are available and are proven to be the most effective prevention tool. Immunity from vaccination decreases with age so “booster” shots are recommended for teens and adults.
  • Almost all deaths and over 80% of hospitalizations associated with pertussis are in infants less than 3 months old.

How It Affects Your Body

Once the bacteria, known as Bordetella pertussis, is inhaled, it attaches to the tiny, hair-like structures (cilia) that line the upper respiratory system and releases poisons that damage them. This, in turn, causes the airways to swell, making it hard to breathe.

As symptoms progress, complications may occur, particularly in infants, who can be subject to pneumonia, heart failure, collapsed lung, brain bleeds and even death. In older children and adults, coughing spells may result in retching and vomiting, leading to rib fracture.

Who Is at Risk?

Pertussis is highly contagious. It is spread from person to person through close contact with someone who is infected via secretions from coughing and sneezing. However, most children are immunized at a young age, as this is the most effective way to avoid infection. It is also why the highest risk group are infants under a year who have not yet been vaccinated. But people of all ages should make sure their vaccinations stay up-to-date to avoid the infection later in life, as it can affect anyone at any time.

Reviewed and approved by the American Lung Association Scientific and Medical Editorial Review Panel.

Page last updated: February 27, 2020

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