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Department of Health News 

This news item expired on 11/30/2008, so the information below could be outdated or incorrect.

Do You Know What Pertussis Is?

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Make sure you know the signs of What is pertussis? Also known as “whooping cough”, pertussis is a serious, highly contagious disease caused by bacteria. It can cause permanent disability in infants, and even death. The disease gets its name from the deep “whooping” sound that is often heard as the sick person tries to take a breath after coughing.

In the 20th century, pertussis was one of the most common childhood diseases and a leading cause of childhood death. In the 1940’s, a pertussis vaccine was developed and its widespread use has helped to decrease the number of pertussis cases seen today.

How is it spread? When an infected person sneezes or coughs, tiny droplets containing the bacteria are sent into the air. This causes the disease to spread easily from person to person.

Who gets it? Whooping cough can affect people of any age. Before vaccines were widely available, the disease was most common in infants and young children. Now that most children are immunized before entering school, the higher percentage of cases is seen among adolescents and adults.

What are the symptoms? Pertussis may begin with cold-like symptoms such as:

  • runny nose
  • sneezing
  • low grade fever

After a couple of weeks, the symptoms may become worse and a patient may:

  • have fits of coughing with many, repeated coughs that makes it hard to breathe
  • make the “whoop” sound while trying to breathe in at the end of the coughing
  • turn blue in the face during the coughing fit
  • vomit following the coughing fit

Young infants are at highest risk for getting pertussis and may also have the most severe complications. These can include:

  • pneumonia
  • seizures
  • death

How is pertussis treated? If you feel you may have pertussis, you should contact your doctor right away. Antibiotics can usually be used to treat pertussis, and can also help reduce the spread the disease to others. Those who are exposed to someone with pertussis should also take an antibiotic.

Can it be prevented? Yes! The best way to keep from getting pertussis is to be vaccinated. Infants should receive four doses of DTaP vaccine during their infant vaccinations. This vaccine protects against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis. A fifth dose should be given before entering school.

A single dose of Tdap is now recommended for young people 11 - 12 years of age. A single dose is also recommended for older adolescents and adults up to age 64. Tdap is similar to the tetanus vaccine that is given every 10 years, but also includes protection against pertussis. It is especially important for pregnant women, healthcare workers and daycare workers to receive the Tdap booster. Tdap may be given as long as it has been at least five years since someone’s last tetanus booster.

What’s important to remember? Pertussis is a preventable disease. Talk to your doctor about being protected.

For more information: Please visit the CDC website.