University Health Service

two women coughing into their sleeves

What is pertussis? 

Pertussis (whooping cough) causes violent coughing that may last for months. During coughing episodes, people may make a "whooping" sound when they try to inhale.

Most people recover from whooping cough with no problems, but it can be dangerous in young children, especially babies, and the elderly.

Cause: 

Bordetella pertussis bacteria

Transmission:

Direct contact with fluids or airborne droplets that are inhaled. 

Symptoms:  

Symptoms can be range from mild to severe. Hear what it sounds like in a child and in an adult

Symptoms usually appear 7-14 days after infection. Symptoms usually last 6-10 weeks but may last longer.

Symptoms may occur in three stages, especially in young children. Others may not follow this pattern of symptoms.

In stage 1, symptoms are cold-like:

  • Sneezing, runny nose, a mild cough, watery eyes, sometimes a mild fever
  • Symptoms last from several days to 2 weeks
  • This is when the disease is most easily transmitted

In stage 2, cold symptoms get better but coughing gets worse.

  • The cough goes from a mild, dry, hacking cough to a severe cough.
  • People may cough so long and hard that they can't breathe, and make a whooping noise when trying to inhale.
  • After a coughing fit, people may vomit and feel very tired.
  • Between coughing fits, people feel normal.
  • Symptoms are most severe in this stage, and usually last 2-4 weeks or longer.

In stage 3, symptoms continue, but people feel better and grow stronger.

  • The cough may get louder.
  • Coughing fits may happen off and on for weeks.
  • Coughing fits may flare up if people get a cold or have a similar illness.
  • This stage may last longer if people have never had the vaccine.

Diagnosis:

Diagnosis may be difficult, because people may seem healthy between coughing episodes. Health care providers can perform a variety of tests to properly diagnose.

Treatment:  

Pertussis is usually treated with antibiotics, which reduces duration of illness and transmission to others.

Adults or teens with pertussis need to take antibiotics for at least 5 days before returning to work or school, to prevent transmission to others.

To help reduce coughing:

  • Create a quiet, calm, restful environment
  • Control triggers of coughing such as smoke, dust, temperature changes
  • Drink plenty of water and other hydrating fluids
  • Over-the-counter medicines such as cough syrups don’t help

Prevention:

  • Get vaccinated. Vaccination reduces risk of infection, make it less severe, and prevents transmission.
    • For children starting at age 2 months, a series of vaccinations (called DTaP) is recommended.
    • A booster called Tdap is recommended at age 11 or 12, and for all teens and adults who never had Tdap.
  • People with close contact with someone with pertussis may be prescribed antibiotics to prevent infection.
  • Wash your hands often.
  • Cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue or your arm. Don't use your hand to cover, because that can spread germs. 
  • Avoid contact with people who have a bad cough, if possible.

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