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Pertussis (Whooping Cough) Fact Sheet

What is Pertussis?

Pertussis is an infection of the lungs. It is caused by bacteria named Bordetella pertussis.

What are symptoms of pertussis?

Illness starts out like the common cold. Low fever, runny nose, sneezing, mild cough which increases in severity. As the cough continues it worsens and is described as fits of coughing. Persons may gag and vomit at the end of these fits. These coughing fits occur mostly at night. The characteristic whoop may or may not be heard.

If I have been around someone with whooping cough will I get sick?

It depends on the type of contact you had with the sick person. Pertussis is spread to others by contact with mucus from the nose and throat of an infected person. For example, coughing and sneezing would cause droplets of mucus to be sprayed into the air. Persons are the most infectious when they are having the "cold-like" symptoms and up to 3 weeks after the onset of severe coughing.

The vaccine for Pertussis usually protects but sometimes even immunized children can get pertussis. Adolescents are not considered protected since the vaccine they received as babies and toddlers offers only some protection. Teens and adults can and do get whooping cough.

How soon after being around someone with pertussis would I become ill?

The time between your exposure and the time you become ill is called the incubation period. The incubation period for pertussis is commonly 7-10 days. It can be longer up to 21 days.

How long will I be sick?

This depends on several factors; age, general state of health prior to infection, and any complications that may occur from illness. Symptoms, especially coughing, usually last for 1-2 months but this could be longer.

What are the complications?

In children less than 1 year of age pertussis is a very serious illness. Infants who are born prematurely or who have lung disease are most at risk. Pneumonia, seizures, brain problems even death can occur.

How is pertussis treated?

Persons with pertussis need to take antibiotics. Some children may require hospitalization. If you are a close contact to the person with pertussis you will need to take an antibiotic and may need vaccine.

Is pertussis preventable?

Yes, disease in children is usually prevented with complete immunization. The vaccine used to prevent pertussis is given as one shot it also protects against tetanus and diphtheria (DTaP) The recommended schedule for pertussis vaccine is at 2,4,6, and 15 to 18 months and another booster dose at 4-6 years old.

What about a vaccine for pre-teens, teens and adults?

Yes, there is a vaccine for persons 7 years and older called Tdap. The recommendation for this vaccine is for pre-teens to get 1 dose when they are 11-12 years old and for adults to get a booster dose as well. It is especially important that anyone who is around children under 1 year of age get this vaccine, for example parents of newborns, grandparents, siblings and health care workers. Pregnant women should get a Tdap during each pregnancy. Tdap can be given during any trimester but getting it in the third trimester provides the best pertussis protection for the baby.

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