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  • What You Should Know: Whooping Cough (Pertussis)

  • With incidents of whooping cough (also known as pertussis) on the rise, learn the facts so you and your family can breathe easily. Whooping cough, an upper respiratory infection caused by bacteria, leads to irrepressible, often violent coughing spells. It can affect people of any age, though infants and young children are the most at risk for permanent disability, and even death.

    According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) whooping cough is relatively common disease in the United States, with frequent outbreaks and periodic epidemics every 3 to 5 years.

    The CDC also reports that in 2010 to date, more than 4,000 cases of whooping cough, including nine infant deaths, were reported throughout California. This is more reported cases than in any year since 1955, when the disease caused 4,949 illnesses. Recently, instances of pertussis have been reported in the Midwest and eastern portions of the country.

    Whooping CoughHow It's Spread

    Whooping cough is spread when an infected person sneezes or coughs and tiny droplets containing the bacteria move through the air. It is a highly contagious disease—if one person in the family has whooping cough, the CDC estimates that there is a 90 percent chance that everyone else in the family will contract the disease.

    What to Look For

    Symptoms, which develop about a week after exposure, are initially similar to the common cold and include:

    • Slight fever (102 degrees or lower)
    • Runny nose
    • Severe, repeated coughs
    • Diarrhea
    • Choking spells in infants

    Severe episodes of coughing start about 10 to 12 days after initial exposure. In children, the coughing often produces a high-pitched “whooping” sound when the patient takes a breath, though the noise is rare in patients under 6 months of age and in adults. In patients of any age, coughing spells may lead to vomiting or a short loss of consciousness.

    If you or your child has any of these symptoms, contact your physician. However, if any of the following symptoms emerge, call 9-1-1 immediately:

    • Blueish skin color, which indicates a lack of oxygen
    • Periods of stopped breathing (apnea)
    • Seizures or convulsions
    • High fever
    • Persistent vomiting
    • Dehydration

    Whooping cough typically lasts about six weeks from the time of infection until symptoms are no longer present.


    The best way to prevent a whooping cough infection at any age is to be properly vaccinated. Despite some speculative correlation between vaccines and autism, a 2010 study by the CDC concluded that vaccination does not increase a child's risk of autism.

    The recommended vaccine in the United States is TDaP (tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis). Children need a course of five shots: the first three at 2, 4, and 6 months of age; the fourth between 15 and 18 months of age; and a fifth shot before a child enters school, at 4 to 6 years of age.

    Whooping Cough FamilyForgoing a vaccination dramatically increases an individual's chances of contracting whooping cough, though a recent cultural trend has some parents choosing not to vaccinate their children.

    “Parents are failing to get their kids vaccinated because they don't believe in the medicine, or are scared of links to autism, but they must understand that this behavior is not without risk to their child,” says Julie Jefferson, RN, director of epidemiology and infection control at Rhode Island Hospital. “Experts in the field are very supportive of vaccinating, and therefore protecting, children.”

    Even if an individual has been properly vaccinated as a child, he or she is not free from the risk of contracting whooping cough.

    “Most people don't realize that after they are about 15 years old, the shots they got as a kid are no longer protective,” says Jefferson. “About five years ago an adult pertussis vaccine became available. We recommend this to every adult, not only so they are protected, but so they won't become the source of the disease for any at-risk children.”

    Although vaccination is a key step in prevention, there is a chance that even a fully vaccinated adult or child can catch the disease. In these cases the infection is usually less severe.

    During a pertussis outbreak, unimmunized children under the age of 7 should not attend school or public gatherings, and should be isolated from anyone known or suspected to be infected. This should last until 14 days after the last reported case.


    If you think you or your child have pertussis, do not administer cough suppressants, which are usually not helpful and can affect proper diagnosis. Instead, speak to your doctor. Once a patient is diagnosed, whooping cough is generally treated with a course of antibiotics, which are used to control the symptoms and to prevent infected people from spreading the disease.