Q: What is pertussis?

A: Pertussis is a very contagious respiratory illness commonly known as “whooping cough.” It is caused by a type of bacteria, Bordatella pertussis, which attach to the lining of the upper respiratory system and release toxins that cause the airways to swell.

The very young, elderly, and those with weakened immune systems have the highest risk of severe complications.

Q: How does pertussis spread?

A: Pertussis is spread by breathing in droplets that contain the bacteria and have become airborne from someone who is infected. Someone with pertussis is most contagious during the early stages of the illness and can spread it for up to 3 weeks after symptoms begin if not treated with an antibiotic.

Q: What is the incubation period?

A: Symptoms of pertussis typically develop between 5 and 10 days from exposure and can range in severity. Occasionally, symptoms may not present for up to 3 weeks. The cough that accompanies can last up to 10 weeks.

Q: What are the symptoms?

A: Since pertussis mimics the common cold in its earlier stages, it often is not suspected or diagnosed until more severe symptoms present.

Early Symptoms:

  • Runny nose
  • Low-grade fever
  • Mild, occasional cough
  • Apnea, or pause in breathing (in babies)

Later Symptoms

  • Fits of many rapid coughs followed by a high-pitched “whoop” as those who are sick inhale to gain oxygen
  • Vomiting during or after coughing fits
  • Exhaustion after coughing fits

People who have been vaccinated may experience a less-severe, shorter-lasting cough. Fewer vaccinated individuals will experience coughing fits, whooping, vomiting, and instances of apnea (pause in breathing) than those who have not received a vaccine against pertussis.                                                      

Q: What vaccine is needed to protect me? How can I get it?

A: The tDap (tetanus-diptheria-pertussis) vaccine helps protect against pertussis and can be given to adolescents and adults. To protect newborns, woman can receive the vaccine while pregnant. Contact your primary care provider to find out more about the tDap vaccine and if you are a good candidate to receive it.

Q: How is pertussis diagnosed?

A: Medical providers will consider recent exposure, observe a patient’s symptoms, and do a physical examination. A laboratory test using a cotton swab or syringe to obtain a sample of mucus and a blood test also may be conducted.

Q: How is pertussis treated?

A: Pertussis is commonly treated with antibiotics. Early treatment is best and can help limit the severity of illness and exposure to others.

Some people may need treated in the hospital because of the severity of their illness. Those treated at home should take prescribed medications and:

  • Rest
  • Stay hydrated
  • Eat small, frequent meals to prevent vomiting
  • Avoid irritants such as smoke, dust, or chemical fumes
  • Practice good handwashing
  • Use a cool mist humidifier to soothe the cough and loosen mucus

Q: What should I do if I believe I may have pertussis?

A: Please contact your primary care provider to determine a course of action.

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention