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Pertussis - Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, Treatment, Prevention and Complications

Published on Apr 06, 2022   -  4 min read


Pertussis is an extremely contagious respiratory disease also known as whooping cough, caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis.


What Is Pertussis?

Pertussis or whooping cough is an uncontrollable, violent cough that often causes cough fits. This makes it difficult for the patient to breathe and requires them to take deep breaths resulting in a “whooping” sound. It is an infection of the respiratory tract that is contagious and can affect people of all ages. It primarily affects children who have not completed their course of vaccination and teenagers and adults whose immunity has faded. Though death is rare, it can cause morbidity and mortality in babies less than one year, especially in those who are not vaccinated. The best possible way to protect oneself against pertussis is through vaccination.

What Are the Causes of Pertussis?

Pertussis is an infection caused by a bacteria called Bordetella pertussis. It is transmitted from an infected person to others through the droplets from coughing or sneezing. It can also be transmitted when an uninfected person comes in contact with the surfaces touched by or the belongings of an infected person. An infected patient can be contagious for about two weeks after the beginning of the cough.

What Are the Symptoms of Whooping Cough?

The symptoms of pertussis usually present within five to ten days after the exposure to the bacteria, but in some instances, symptoms may not show for up to three weeks.

Pertussis shows symptoms similar to the common cold and may last for one to two weeks. The patients usually show mild symptoms at the beginning, which may worsen in a few people. These symptoms can include:

The symptoms may manifest differently in different age groups. Not all patients develop the “whoop.” In adolescents and adults, the primary sign may be a hacking cough that is persistent. In babies, the cough may be minimal or absent, and they may directly develop apnea because of the difficulty in breathing and may start turning blue because of cyanosis. This progression in babies will require emergency medical intervention.

Though the symptoms appear similar to that of a cold initially, the symptoms may start to worsen after a week or two. The extreme symptoms of “whooping cough” present because a thick mucus accumulates inside the airways of the affected patients. The cough gets worse and appears more frequently at night. The symptoms may persist for ten weeks or more.

Recovery often occurs slowly, with the symptoms getting milder and less frequent.

How Can Pertussis Be Diagnosed?

The following methods can diagnose pertussis:

What Are the Treatments for Whooping Cough?

Early treatment of pertussis is the best way to manage the symptoms and help prevent the spread of the disease. Serious complications may require hospitalization. Infants may mainly require intensive care as they may present with complicated symptoms directly. Adolescents and adults can be treated at home. Antibiotics are administered for the treatment as they kill the causative bacteria and help the patients to recover faster. Family members and patient attendees can be given preventive antibiotics. Over-the-counter cough medications are usually avoided as they have little or no effect on the prognosis of the disease.

Can Whooping Cough Be Prevented?

The two vaccines for pertussis currently available in the United States are DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus, and acellular pertussis) and Tdap (combined tetanus, diphtheria, and acellular pertussis). The combined vaccine for diphtheria, pertussis, and tetanus is used in order to avoid all three infections. The vaccines are typically given to children as a series of five injections at the following ages: two months, four months, six months, 15 to 18 months, and four to six years. Booster doses are given to adults and adolescents as the immunity starts to reduce by the age of eleven. Pregnant women are recommended to take the vaccine between 27 and 36 weeks of gestation.

Infants and other people at high risk of developing severe complications of the disease should be kept away from people who have them. Sometimes antibiotic prophylaxis is given to family members or people who have the chance of being exposed to it.

How Can Pertussis Be Prevented?

Pertussis can be prevented by:

What Are the Complications Associated With Pertussis?

Complications for teens and adults seldom arise, but they occur as the side effect of strenuous coughing when they do. The associated complications are:

Complications in children, however, may be more severe and may include:


As infants and toddlers (especially those younger than six months) are at a greater risk of complications from pertussis, they are more likely to require hospitalization. If the symptoms are noticed, it is best to follow the preventive measures and get appropriate treatment at the earliest. Early treatment helps prevent complications.

Last reviewed at:
06 Apr 2022  -  4 min read




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