Pertussis - Whooping Cough


Pertussis is a serious illness causing severe paroxysms of coughing. The gasp for breath occurring at the end of the coughing is the “whoop” that gives pertussis its other name, whooping cough. Most people receive vaccinations that protect them from pertussis. However, in recent years the disease resurged, likely due to several factors. Vaccination booster shots may help decrease the likelihood of contracting pertussis as an adult. Infants, especially those under three months of age are most at risk. When administered early in the illness, antibiotics may significantly lessen the symptoms of the disease.

Pertussis, better known to many as whooping cough, is an infectious disease caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis. It causes uncontrollable bouts of coughing so severe and extended that the intake of breath at the end sounds like a whoop. The severe coughing may cause choking and/or vomiting.

The Bordetella pertussis bacterium attaches to the cilia in in the airways and then secretes a toxin that paralyzes parts of the respiratory cells. The result is inflammation of the respiratory tract.1

Pertussis, while generally considered a childhood disease, strikes people of all ages. However, most of its victims are infants and children, and pertussis is especially dangerous for them. Over half of infants diagnosed with whooping cough require hospitalization. Many babies experience difficulty eating, drinking, and breathing due to Pertussis.2

Babies with pertussis may experience several complications, including bacterial pneumonia, bleeding in the eyes, convulsions, and even bleeding in the brain, leading to brain damage in about one percent of patients. Unfortunately, each year, 10 to twenty people die from Pertussis in the United States.3

In the early twentieth century, there were great strides in creating vaccinations to prevent infectious illnesses such as smallpox, diphtheria, typhoid, and tetanus. However, there were only some ineffective vaccines for Pertussis.4 Not until the 1940s 

was there a reliable pertussis vaccine.5 The result was a significant drop in whooping cough cases.

However, perhaps due to a sense of complacency or out of a fear of alleged side effects, many now choose not to vaccinate their babies and children. Additionally, the vaccinations many adults received in childhood are no longer as effective as they once were, so that many now need booster shots. As a result, the number of pertussis cases increased. In 2012, there were 48,277 reported cases of pertussis, the most since 1955.6

There are three stages of pertussis. The first is the “catarrhal stage”, which evidences much like a common cold, with runny nose, sneezing and low fever. Coughing increases and the disease enters into paroxysmal coughing, with the hallmark sound of whooping cough. Only after several weeks does the severity of the cough decrease. Notably, individuals previously vaccinated against pertussis often have less severe symptoms.7

Treating pertussis usually includes taking antibiotics. The earlier antibiotics get into the system, the better. Additionally, in certain cases people not diagnosed with pertussis but who have been around someone with it may be given a preventative antibiotic. Additional steps for keeping someone with pertussis more comfortable include eliminating exposure to irritants such as smoke, using a cool mist vaporizer, drinking plenty of fluids, and eating small meals to reduce the chance of vomiting due to a severe coughing attack.8

If someone in the home has pertussis, practicing good sanitation is important, especially regular hand washing. Additionally, the sick individual must complete the entire course of prescribed antibiotics. Carefully monitoring individuals with pertussis is important. Supportive care is also important, especially in reducing the severity and number of coughing paroxysms. In some cases, breathing treatments may be required, and severe cases require hospitalization.

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Additional Diseases Info:

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alveolus air sac where gas exchange takes place.
angina chest pain.
aorta blood vessel that delivers oxygen-rich blood from the left ventricle to the body; it is the largest blood vessel in the body.
apex top portion of the upper lobes of the lungs.
atrium one of the two receiving chambers of the heart.
base bottom portion of lower lobes, located just above the diaphragm.
blood pressure pressure of blood against the walls of a blood vessel or heart chamber.
bronchiolitis inflammation that involves the bronchioles (small airways).
bronchoscopy the examination of the bronchi (the main airways of the lungs) using a flexible tube (bronchoscope). Bronchoscopy helps to evaluate and diagnose lung problems, assess blockages, obtain samples of tissue and/or fluid, and/or to help remove a foreign body.
bronchus large airways; lung divides into right and left bronchi.
cardiac output total amount of blood being pumped by the heart over a particular period of time.
catheter thin, flexible medical tube; one use is to insert it into a blood vessel to measure blood pressure.
constrict tighten; narrow.
cyanosis bluish color in the skin because of insufficient oxygen.
diaphragm primary muscle used for respiration, located just below the lung bases.
diastolic pressure lowest pressure to which blood pressure falls between contractions of the ventricles.
dilate relax; expand.
dyspnea sensation of difficulty in breathing.
edema swelling due to the buildup of fluid.
endothelial cells the delicate lining, only one cell thick, of the organs of circulation.
expiration exhaling; giving off carbon dioxide.
heartbeat one complete contraction of the heart.
hyperactive describes a situation in which a body tissue is especially likely to have an exaggerated reaction to a particular situation.
hypertension abnormally high blood pressure.
hypotension abnormally low blood pressure.
inspiration inhaling; taking in oxygen.
lobectomy removal of an entire lobe of the lung.
lung volume the amount of air the lungs hold.
mean blood pressure average blood pressure, taking account of the rise and fall that occurs with each heartbeat. It is often estimated by multiplying the diastolic pressure by two, adding the systolic pressure, and then dividing this sum by three.
palpitation sensation of rapid heartbeats.
perfusion flow.
pleura membrane that covers the outside of the lung.
pneumonectomy removal of an entire lung.
pulmonary artery blood vessel delivering oxygen-poor blood from the right ventricle to the lungs.
pulmonary hypertension abnormally high blood pressure in the arteries of the lungs.
smooth muscle muscle that performs automatic tasks, such as constricting blood vessels.
spirogram record of the amounts of air being moved in and out of the lungs.
syncope fainting; temporary loss of consciousness.
systemic relating to a process that affects the body generally; in this instance, the way in which blood is supplied through the aorta to all body organs except the lungs.
systolic pressure the highest pressure to which blood pressure rises with the contraction of the ventricles.
vasodilator agent that widens blood vessels.
ventilation movement of air (gases) in and out of the lungs.
ventricle one of the two pumping chambers of the heart; right ventricle receives oxygen-poor blood from the right atrium and pumps it to the lungs through the pulmonary artery; left ventricle receives oxygen-rich blood from the left atrium and pumps it to the body through the aorta.