Health Services

Pertussis (Whooping Cough)

What is pertussis?
Pertussis, also called whooping cough, is a disease cause by bacteria that is easily spread from person to person. Pertussis is usually mild in older children and adults, but it often causes serious problems in very young children.

What are the symptoms of pertussis?
Pertussis symptoms have three stages. The first stage begins like a cold with a runny nose, sneezing and cough. The cough lasts for a week or two then slowly gets worse. The second stage is marked by uncontrolled coughing spells, vomiting after coughing, and sometimes a whooping noise that you can hear when the person breaths in. During severe coughing spells or spasms, a person may stop breathing or become blue in the face from lack of air. Between spells, the person often appears to be well. This stage lasts for about 2 to 6 weeks. The final stage is when the symptoms begin to gradually lessen. The person may still have coughing spells, but is beginning to get better. The duration of classic pertussis is about 6 to 10 weeks. Adults, teens and vaccinated children often have milder symptoms that can be like bronchitis or some other cough illness.

Who gets pertussis?
In Massachusetts, pertussis is most common among people 10 to 20 years old who have lost the protection they got from childhood vaccines. However, anyone can catch pertussis and it can be hard to diagnose because symptoms may resemble a cold, followed by a nagging cough that lasts for weeks or months.

Is pertussis dangerous?
It can be, especially for infants. In older children, teens and adults, disease is milder but may last for weeks or months.

How is pertussis diagnosed?
Pertussis can be very hard to diagnose. A culture and blood test are the only way to accurately diagnose pertussis. The culture is taken by swab from the back of the nose. The blood test can only be used after someone has been coughing for at least 2 weeks.

How is pertussis treated?
The main treatment is plenty of rest and fluids. Antibiotics can make the disease milder and the person less able to spread the disease if they are started early enough. Anyone who has been exposed to pertussis should see their healthcare provider for antibiotics to reduce the chance of the disease spreading further.

Revised 05/05