Pertussis (Whooping Cough)

April 28, 2019

A Highly Contagious Infection

Pertussis, also called whooping cough, is a bacterial infection that causes episodes of severe coughing. In adults, the coughing can be so intense that it results in broken ribs and vomiting. Babies with pertussis are more likely to have long pauses in their breathing and often need to be hospitalized.

These questions and answers can help you avoid pertussis and keep from spreading it to others.

What are the Symptoms of Pertussis?

During the first few weeks of pertussis infection, symptoms can seem like those of a bad cold. You may have a runny nose, a dry or sore throat, a mild cough and a low fever.

Over time, pertussis symptoms get worse. During the later stages you may have:

  • Fits of violent, rapid coughing that force the air from your lungs. This causes you to inhale with a loud whooping sound. These episodes often happen at night.
  • Vomiting during or after coughing fits
  • Loss of bladder control during a coughing fit
  • Exhaustion after coughing
  • Coughing fits that go on for ten weeks or more

Babies with pertussis can have different symptoms. Many babies don’t cough at all. Instead, they temporarily stop breathing, a condition called apnea. Some babies become cyanotic, which means they turn blue from lack of oxygen. When babies younger than one year get pertussis, about half of them need to be hospitalized.

How is Pertussis Diagnosed and Treated?

If you have symptoms of pertussis, your doctor will ask if you’ve been exposed to someone with this disease. He or she also does a physical examination and orders lab tests to confirm your diagnosis. These tests may involve taking a sample of mucus from the back of your throat to be cultured in the lab. You may also have a blood test or a chest X-ray.

Treatment for pertussis works best if it’s started early. Antibiotics can make your infection less serious, and can also help prevent the spread of pertussis to people around you. You should also get plenty of rest and drink fluids to avoid getting dehydrated.

After you’ve had pertussis for three weeks, antibiotics are unlikely to help. By this time, the damage that caused your symptoms has been done and the bacteria are no longer present.

Babies who are treated in the hospital may get oxygen to help with breathing and IV fluids if they have trouble eating or become dehydrated. If you have a child at home with pertussis, don’t give cough medicine unless your doctor recommends it. Cough medicine probably will not help with pertussis, and it can cause health risks for children younger than four years of age.

How Can I Avoid Pertussis?

The best way to prevent pertussis is to get vaccinated against this disease. This is important for babies, children, teens and adults. In the United States, the pertussis vaccine is included with those for diphtheria and tetanus in a combination vaccine called DTaP.

Pertussis germs are spread from person to person through sneezing and coughing. You can also pick up these germs on surfaces that someone with pertussis has touched. To avoid spreading pertussis and other respiratory diseases, practice these good hygiene steps:

  • When you cough or sneeze, cover your mouth with a tissue and throw it in a wastebasket.
  • If you do not have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your upper sleeve or elbow.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water, or with alcohol-based cleanser if soap and water are not available.

*The content on this website is for informational purposes only and is not medical advice. Please consult a physician regarding your specific medical condition, diagnosis and/or treatment.