Pertussis (Whooping Cough)

Disease database

Pertussis, commonly known as whooping cough, is a highly contagious respiratory infection caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis. It is characterized by severe coughing fits, a distinctive whooping sound when coughing, vomiting after coughing, exhaustion, difficulty breathing, and cyanosis. While it can affect individuals of all ages, it is particularly dangerous for infants and young children. In this article, we will explore the symptoms, causes, treatment, and prevention of pertussis.

Symptoms of Pertussis

The symptoms of pertussis typically develop within 7 to 10 days after exposure to the bacteria. The initial symptoms are similar to those of a common cold, including a runny nose, sneezing, mild cough, and low-grade fever. However, after a week or two, the cough becomes more severe and is characterized by:

  • Severe coughing fits: These fits can be so intense that they may lead to vomiting or exhaustion.
  • Whooping sound when coughing: The characteristic whooping sound occurs when the person tries to inhale after a coughing fit.
  • Vomiting after coughing: The forceful coughing can cause vomiting, which may provide temporary relief.
  • Exhaustion: The frequent coughing fits can leave the person feeling extremely tired and drained.
  • Difficulty breathing: The coughing fits can be accompanied by difficulty breathing or shortness of breath.
  • Cyanosis: In severe cases, the lack of oxygen during coughing fits can cause the skin or lips to turn blue.

Causes and Transmission

Pertussis is caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis, which is highly contagious and spreads from person to person through respiratory droplets. When an infected person coughs or sneezes, tiny droplets containing the bacteria are released into the air. These droplets can be inhaled by others, leading to infection. Pertussis is most contagious during the early stages when the symptoms resemble a common cold.

Treatment of Pertussis

While pertussis can be a serious illness, it can be treated with appropriate medical care. The primary treatment for pertussis involves the use of antibiotics, such as azithromycin or erythromycin, to eliminate the bacteria and reduce the severity of symptoms. Early treatment is crucial to prevent complications and reduce the spread of the infection to others.

In addition to antibiotics, supportive care is essential to manage the symptoms and promote recovery. This may include:

  • Rest and plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration.
  • Using a humidifier or taking steamy showers to relieve coughing and loosen mucus.
  • Taking over-the-counter cough suppressants or using prescribed medications to alleviate coughing fits.
  • Using nasal saline drops or sprays to relieve nasal congestion.
  • Practicing good hand hygiene to prevent the spread of the infection.

Prevention of Pertussis

The best way to prevent pertussis is through vaccination. The pertussis vaccine is typically administered as part of the combination vaccine known as DTaP, which also protects against diphtheria and tetanus. It is recommended that children receive five doses of the DTaP vaccine, with the first dose given at 2 months of age and the final dose between 4 and 6 years of age. Booster doses are also recommended for adolescents and adults.

In addition to vaccination, practicing good respiratory hygiene can help prevent the spread of pertussis. This includes:

  • Covering the mouth and nose with a tissue or elbow when coughing or sneezing.
  • Disposing of used tissues properly.
  • Regularly washing hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
  • Avoiding close contact with individuals who have a cough or cold symptoms.
  • Staying home from school or work when feeling unwell.

It is important to note that even with vaccination and preventive measures, pertussis can still occur. However, the severity of the illness is often reduced in vaccinated individuals.


Pertussis, or whooping cough, is a highly contagious respiratory infection that can cause severe coughing fits, exhaustion, and difficulty breathing. It is particularly dangerous for infants and young children. Early diagnosis and treatment with antibiotics are crucial to manage the symptoms and prevent complications. Vaccination and good respiratory hygiene practices are the best methods to prevent the spread of pertussis. By staying informed and taking appropriate precautions, we can protect ourselves and others from this potentially serious illness.

Haroon Rashid, MD
Rate author
Urgent Care Center of Arlington, VA
Add a comment