What is whooping cough (pertussis)?

Pertussis or whooping cough is a disease that causes severe coughing that makes it hard to breathe, eat, or drink; can lead to pneumonia, convulsions, brain damage, and death. Most serious for kids under three because secretions are thick and windpipes are tiny. Older children develop a cough and typically recover uneventfully. Immunity wanes as kids get older, with pertussis outbreaks common and often starting with a coughing adult. This can lead to more potentially fatal cases in unimmunized children and incompletely immunized infants. The booster dosing helps with waning immunity in those over eleven years old.

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Pertussis is a coughing disease that can be fatal to children; pregnant women should have the vaccination during the third trimester to help protect the baby.

Dr. James D. Cherry, MD

Pertussis (whooping cough) is a bacterial infection of the respiratory system. It is highly contagious and can spread from person to person through tiny drops of fluid from an infected person’s nose or mouth. Pertussis occurs in persons of all ages but is particularly severe and frequently fatal in infants less than 4 months of age. The most common source of infection in a young infant is from an adolescent or adult family member with pertussis who has not been correctly diagnosed.

Also known as whooping cough, pertussis is a severe, contagious respiratory disease that can last for months. Although many children have been vaccinated during early childhood, immunity wears off over time, leaving older students and adults susceptible.

Whooping cough, or pertussis, is an extremely contagious infection of the respiratory tract. It is caused by bacteria called Bordetella pertussis. Symptoms start off mild, almost like a cold. The symptoms progress to a severe cough, following by a "whoop" sound, caused by a lengthy, high-pitched gulp of air.  However, it is possible to have the disease without the distinctive "whoop" sound. Whooping cough can affect people of any age; however, almost half of all cases occur in children under the age of 11. There is a vaccine to prevent whooping cough, routinely given to children in the U.S.

Continue Learning about Whooping Cough

Can I Develop Whooping Cough (Pertussis) as an Adult?
Can I Develop Whooping Cough (Pertussis) as an Adult?
People of all ages can get whooping cough (pertussis). Watch Darria Long-Gillespie, MD, explain how symptoms can be different for adults and children,...
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When should I call the doctor about my child’s cough?
James FortenberryJames Fortenberry
 Call 911 or your local ambulance service right away if your child:Is so tired and weak that he hard...
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Can the whooping cough vaccine cause health problems?
The Woman's Hospital of TexasThe Woman's Hospital of Texas
Before the 1990s, the pertussis immunization was part of the DTP vaccine, which contained the whole ...
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How Effective Are Pertussis (Whooping Cough) Vaccines?
How Effective Are Pertussis (Whooping Cough) Vaccines?

Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.