Pertussis (Whooping Cough)

Kori Howard

About Pertussis

Pertussis, also known as whooping cough, is a highly contagious respiratory illness caused by a bacteria called Bordetella pertussis that causes uncontrollable, violent coughing. A deep "whooping" sound is often heard when the patient tries to take a breath. It is spread from person to person and is most dangerous for babies and young children. Vaccination is reccommended for pregnant women and infants starting at 2 months.

History of Pertussis

Pertussis was first discovered in 1906. In the 1920s, Louis W. Sauer developed a weak vaccine for the disease, and in 1925 a Danish physician was the first to test a whole-cell vaccine on a wide scale. In 1942 the first DTP combination vaccine was generated (pertussis vaccine combined with diphtheria and tetanus toxoids). Although vaccines have largely helped the prevention of whooping cough, no vaccine is 100% efffective and people are still infected every year.

Signs and Symptoms of Pertussis

Whooping cough begins with these symptoms:

  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • Mild cough
  • Pause in breathing in infants (apnea)

After 1 to 2 weeks severe coughing begins. More serious problems typically seen in children and babies include:

  • Persistant, severe coughing
  • Gagging/gasping for breath after a coughing fit. This is where the "whooping" sound comes from.
  • Difficulty breathing, eating, drinking, or sleeping due to coughing fits
  • Vomiting after coughing fits
  • Turning blue while coughing due to lack of oxygen

*Coughing fits can last for 10 weeks, and sometimes happen again the next time the child has a respiratory illness (CDC).


Pertussis is usually spread by infected people coughing or sneezing while on close contact with others. It is contracted by breathing in the bacteria that causes the disease. Parents and caregivers may not even know they have whooping cough, which is how babies are typically infected. Infected people are most contagious up to about 2 weeks after the cough begins.


Babies and young children are most at risk for complications due to whooping cough. Some complications include:

  • Pneumonia
  • Dehydration
  • Low blood pressure
  • Brain damage, if breathing difficulties prevent enough oxygen from getting to the brain
  • Weight loss due to excessive vomiting
  • Apnea

Babies under 1 year who get whooping cough are likely to end up in the hospital, and a few even die from the disease.

Control Measures

Although not 100% preventable, the strongest measure of defense against pertussis is vaccination (DTaP). It is recommended that babies begin their pertussis vaccinations at 2 months of age. According to the CDC, "before the DTaP shot was given routinely to infants, about 8,000 people in the United States died each year from whooping cough. Today, because of the vaccine, this number has dropped to fewer than 20 per year" (CDC 2015).

Worldwide, pertussis is one of the leading causes of vaccine-preventable deaths, mostly due to lack of vaccination. The incidence rate of pertussis is highest among unvaccinated babies in developing countries.