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 re-surged, 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.
The information on this page is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. For more information about pertussis or whooping cough, talk to your doctor or primary care provider.
Page last updated: October 14, 2018