WHAT IS PERTUSSIS(Whooping Cough)?

Pertussis, also commonly called whooping cough, is a bacterial infection of the respiratory tract caused by Bordetella pertussis. Pertussis infections occur when Bordetella pertussis bacteria attach to cilia, small hair like structures on the surfaces of some cells, in the upper respiratory tract. The bacterium releases toxins that damage the cilia and cause swelling.2

It is highly contagious and occurs mainly in infants and children. There is a vaccine against pertussis; however it is not 100 percent effective. Infants that have not yet received the full vaccine series are especially at risk.1


Most people infected with pertussis exhibit cold-like symptoms: mild fever, runny nose and cough. One to two weeks after initial infection, the cough typically worsens into paroxysmal cough (severe coughing fit), followed a characteristic wheeze, or whoop, which gives the disease its common name. These fits are occasionally followed by apnea (blocked breathing). Complications include pneumonia, and rarely seizures and encephalopathy.2

Coughing fits can continue for 10 weeks or more after initial infection. Coughing fits consist of many, rapid coughs with the characteristic whoop, possibly followed by vomiting and exhaustion due to the coughing. People that have been vaccinated tend to have shorter and less severe coughing fits, even though they may still be infected. Subsequent respiratory infections such as a common cold may trigger reoccurrence of coughing fits. 1


Whooping cough is highly contagious and spread through the coughing or sneezing of someone infected with pertussis; aerosolized droplets containing the bacterium are released which are then inhaled by others. Typically symptoms do not occur for five to 10 days post exposure, but can take up to three weeks. Infected people are most contagious from the time initial symptoms appear until two weeks after they occur. Infants are often exposed from caregivers or older siblings who may not be aware that they are infected.


The best way to prevent pertussis infection is through vaccination. The recommended pertussis vaccination is part of the tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis (Tdap) shot. Infants receive three doses of the Tdap vaccination. Individuals can then receive a booster shot every 10 years to increase immunity. Booster vaccinations to new parents and caretakers of infants are highly recommended as the most common vector of transmission is from adult to infant. 2

General hygiene measures help reduce the spread of pertussis, such as: covering the mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing and/or sneezing, regular hand washing for 20 seconds with soap and water, or using alcohol-based hand rub and if infected, avoiding contact with susceptible individuals, especially infants too young for vaccinations.1 Environmental surfaces should be disinfected with EPA-registered disinfectants carrying a claim against Bordetella pertussis.


1) http://www.who.int/immunization/topics/pertussis/en/

2) http://www.cdc.gov/pertussis/index.html