Pertussis, also known as whooping cough, is a highly contagious infection of the respiratory tract caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis. It gets the name whooping cough from the high-pitched “whoop” sound that occurs in some patients—particularly young children—with the sudden intake of breath during a severe coughing spell. The uncontrollable coughing occurs because of thick mucus that accumulates inside the infected person’s airways, which can make breathing difficult. Pertussis affects people of all ages, but it is especially dangerous to babies less than a year old, due to their smaller airways.
Pertussis spreads from person to person through airborne droplets released into the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. If another person inhales the particles, that person can then become infected.
Initial symptoms of pertussis infection, which are similar to those of the common cold, include nasal congestion; runny nose; red, watery eyes; fever; and cough. As the infection worsens over the next seven to 14 days, more severe coughing fits typically begin. Many people with pertussis don’t develop the “whoop” sound at the end of their cough—in fact, adolescents and adults with pertussis may just develop a persistent, hacking cough. Teens and adults also can experience other problems that result from persistent, severe coughing spells, such as sore or cracked ribs, loss of bladder control and abdominal hernia.
In infants, coughing may not be present at all. Instead, the infant may struggle to breathe or experience a temporary failure to breathe. Complications arising from pertussis in infants may include seizures, pneumonia or brain damage. Infants are also at the highest risk for death from the infection.
Vaccination is the best way to protect yourself from pertussis. Most children between the ages of 2 months and 6 years receive a series of vaccinations that protect them from pertussis, as well as from tetanus and diphtheria. Because the immunity provided by the pertussis vaccination tends to wear off by age 11, however, booster shots should be given about every 10 years. Adults should keep up with their pertussis vaccinations as well. In addition to protecting them from pertussis, vaccination helps keep them from spreading the infection to others—particularly to infants and young children.