Pertusis, also known as whooping cough, is a very contagious respiratory illness caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis. In many people, it is characterized by severe fits of coughing and high-pitched breathing, which generates a telltale “whooping” sound. Thanks to modern vaccination programs, whooping cough is far less common than it used to be. However, rates of the infection have increased over the past few years and the bacteria still affects thousands of Americans every year.
Before a vaccine was developed, pertussis was a common childhood disease. Currently, it primarily impacts young children who have not yet been immunized, and teenagers and adults whose immunities have begun to fade. It is especially important for pregnant women – and adults who have close contact with infants – to be vaccinated against the infection. All adults over 19 who have not previously received a pertussis vaccine should have a booster.
Understanding the Risk
Whooping cough complications can lead to a host of serious problems in infants, including pneumonia, breathing problems, apnea (pauses in breathing), seizures, dehydration, brain damage and death. Deaths are very rare, with most usually occurring with infants.
Recognizing Whooping Cough Symptoms
Once a person becomes infected with pertussis, it usually takes between 5-10 days for symptoms to appear. At first, the symptoms mimic a common cold and include:
- Runny nose
- Nasal congestion
- Red, watery eyes
- Dry cough
- A mild fever
After one to two weeks, the infection usually results in a persistent hacking cough, coughing fits, and/or the characteristic high-pitched “whoop” sound that occurs during inhalation. This coughing stage can last up to six weeks.
When to See a Doctor
Most people recover from pertussis without any problems; however, infants often require hospitalization to guard against complications. If prolonged coughing spells cause your child to exhibit any of the following, see a doctor right away:
- Turning red or blue
- Inhale with a whooping sound
- Difficulties breathing
It is important to err on the side of caution and seek medical attention if your child shows any troubling symptoms.