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Facts About...

PERTUSSIS (Whooping Cough)


What is it?

Whooping cough is an infection caused by bacteria. Pertussis is most severe when it occurs in the first 6 months of life and can lead to serious complications. Previously immunized adolescents and adults are also susceptible to pertussis due to immunity that decreases over time.

Pertussis is a reportable disease and must be reported to the Health Department.

How is it spread?

Whooping cough is very contagious and is spread easily from person to person through the air in droplets that are produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes, by having direct contact with nose and throat secretions, and less commonly by having contact with articles in contact with nose and throat secretions. People who spend as little as an hour in the same room as a person with pertussis may get sick.

Pertussis is most contagious during the first 2 weeks of the illness often before the cough begins. The risk of spread is low after the third week of symptoms.

What do I look for?

Whooping cough starts like a cold, with a runny nose, sneezing and coughing. The cough gradually gets worse over the next 1-2 weeks until there are episodes of repeated violent coughing. These coughing “fits” may be followed by vomiting, an inhaled breath or “whoop,” or breathing may stop (apnea). The coughing decreases over time but this can take weeks to months. Infants under 6 months of age and people who have been vaccinated often do not have the “whoop” or the coughing fits. Vaccinated people who become ill with pertussis usually have only mild illness.

How is it treated?

People with pertussis can spread the bacteria for up to 3 weeks if they do not take appropriate antibiotics. Treatment with antibiotics stops the spread of the bacteria within 5 days. When antibiotics are given to someone with whooping cough the medication is very good at killing the bacteria so that the disease cannot be spread to others. People with whooping cough should stay out of contact with other children, especially babies and women in their 3rd trimester of pregnancy, until after 5 days of taking antibiotics.

Sometimes infants, close family members with infants or pregnant women in their third trimester who are in close contact with a person with pertussis are recommended to take antibiotics to decrease the risk of complications from the disease.

It is important to finish all the prescribed antibiotic medication as directed by your doctor/health care provider.

Protect all members of your family by making sure all of their vaccinations are up to date.

How can I protect myself?

March 20, 2013