Also known as: whooping cough.

What is pertussis?

Pertussis, more commonly known as whooping cough, is a very contagious bacterial disease that affects all ages but is particularly worrying (even deadly) in infants < 1 year of age. Vaccination is very effective in preventing the disease but it still affects many children who have not completed their vaccinations (8 out 10) or adults whose immunity has decreased.  With loss of immunity (vaccination immunity diminishes over time) a child/adult can get pertussis more than once.

What causes pertussis? 

A bacterium called Bordetella pertussis found in the mouth, nose and throat of older infected children/adults causes pertussis. The disease is highly contagious and can be spread easily through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

What are the symptoms of pertussis? 

In older children, symptoms usually develop 5-10 days (1-3 weeks) after exposure and start with “cold-like” symptoms (mild fever, cough, runny nose), which after 1-2 weeks goes onto worsening fits of repetitive rapid dry cough (which may be triggered by crying, feeding or other causes -often at night) finally ending with a deep breath sounding like a “whoop” and frequently, vomiting. Coughing (with or without a whoop) can go on for up to 10 weeks with the cough/whoop (and vomiting) becoming milder and milder and less frequent.
Pertussis is particularly serious in newborn babies and infants (almost half will need to be hospitalized) who may not cough or vomit much, but instead have short periods when they stop breathing (apnea), and become blue (cyanosed) due to lack of oxygen. Infants/small children may become exhausted from the coughing episodes.

What are pertussis care options? 

All children (and adults who are caretakers for children) should be immunized.
Infected children (and family and other persons who have in contact with an infected child) should receive antibiotics. Hospitalization may be required particularly in small babies, to support oxygenation and ensure adequate fluid and food intake. At home, your pediatrician will discuss with you the variety of other treatments which may be necessary and remind you of worrying signs or symptoms which would warrant you contacting them again. 

Reviewed by: Jack Wolfsdorf, MD, FAAP

This page was last updated on: 2/21/2018 9:50:34 AM


Andrew was born with chronic lung disease and has had to live his entire life connected to a ventilator that helps him breathe. He’s been receiving treatment at Nicklaus Children’s Hospital since he was three months old, and along the way he and his family were told about VACC Camp, a week-long camp free of charge for patients like him.

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