Pertussis (Whooping Cough) Fact Sheet
What is pertussis?
Pertussis, also called "Whooping cough," is a disease caused by bacteria. Pertussis is usually mild in older children and adults, but it often causes serious problems in babies.
Who gets pertussis?
Pertussis is most common among babies, but anyone can get it. Pertussis can be hard to diagnose in babies, teens, and adults because their symptoms often look like a cold with a nagging cough. Babies often get pertussis from older children or adults.
What are the symptoms of pertussis?
Pertussis begins like a cold, with a runny nose, sneezing, mild fever, and cough that slowly gets worse. After one to two weeks, the cough gets worse and usually starts to occur in strong "coughing fits." This type of coughing may last for six or more weeks. There is generally no feverduring this time. In young children, coughing fits are often followed by a whooping sound as they try to catch their breath. After coughing, a person may have difficulty catching their breath, vomit, or become blue in the face from lack of air. The coughing spells may be so bad that it is hard for babies to eat, drink, or breathe. The cough is often worse at night, and cough medicines usually do not help reduce the cough. Between coughing spells, the person often appears to be well. Some babies may only have apnea (failure to breathe) and can die from this. Adults, teens, and vaccinated children often have milder symptoms that mimic bronchitis or asthma.
How is pertussis spread?
The pertussis bacteria live in the nose, mouth, and throat, and are sprayed into the air when an infected person sneezes, coughs, or talks. Other people nearby can then inhale the bacteria. Touching a tissue or sharing a cup used by someone with pertussis can also spread the disease. The first symptoms usually appear within 5 days to 21 days after a person is infected.
Is pertussis dangerous?
It can be, especially for babies. Pertussis can cause breathing problems (apnea), pneumonia, and swelling of the brain (encephalopathy), which can lead to seizures and brain damage. Pertussis can also cause death (rarely), especially in babies.
How is pertussis diagnosed?
A doctor may diagnose a patient with pertussis because of their symptoms. To confirm the diagnosis, the doctor will swab the back of the nose for laboratory testing. It is important to remember laboratory tests may be negative even if a patient has pertussis.
How is pertussis treated?
Antibiotics are used to treat the infected person and their close contacts. In addition, it is helpful to get plenty of rest and fluids. Persons hospitalized with severe pertussis may need special treatments to help them through prolonged periods of coughing.
Can pertussis be prevented?
Yes, pertussis can be prevented among household members and others in close contact with an infected person by treating the exposed persons with antibiotics, even if they have been vaccinated. Vaccination of children and adults can also prevent pertussis. The pertussis vaccine is given along with diphtheria and tetanus vaccines in the same shot (called DTaP) for children. DTaP cannot be given to babies less than six weeks old or to anyone seven years of age or older. Experts recommend that all babies and children be given a full series of DTaP vaccine unless there is a medical reason not to receive the vaccine. Vaccination is recommended at 2, 4, 6, and 15 to 18 months old, with an additional shot at four to six years old, for a total of five doses. The 4th dose of DTaP may be given as early as 12 months, provided 6 months have elapsed since the third dose of DTaP. Vaccination against pertussis is also recommended for older children and adults. Because vaccine protection begins to fade in older children and adults, a new vaccine (called Tdap) has been developed against pertussis for these age groups. To protect babies from being exposed to pertussis, families who have or are expecting a baby and people who work with babies should consult with their doctor about receiving this vaccine. Most hospitalizations and deaths occur in children younger than three months of age. When possible, babies should be kept away from people who are coughing. Babies with any coughing should be seen by a doctor.
Is the pertussis vaccine safe?
Yes, it is safe for most people. Though there is a very slight risk of problems caused by the vaccine, pertussis is extremely serious. Pertussis causes about 10 deaths to 20 deaths each year in the United States. That is why experts recommend that all babies and children be given a full series of DTaP vaccine unless there is a medical reason not to receive the vaccine.
Where can you get more information?
Call your doctor, nurse, local health department, or the Texas Department of State Health Services, Immunization Branch at (800) 252-9152.