A Vaccine Preventable Disease

Identification and Definition of Pertussis

Pertussis is a contagious disease caused by the bacteria Bordetella pertussis. It is commonly known as whooping cough and is associated with persistent, uncontrollable coughing followed by the need for deep breaths.

History of Pertussis

Pertussis has been around for at least 500 years but was not fully identified until 1906 when the Bordetella pertussis bacteria was identified through a microscope. About 200,000 people were identified each year before vaccines were widely used in the 1940s. Now, the number of cases of pertussis each year are at 10,000-40,000 with very few deaths.

Signs and Symptoms of Pertussis

Pertussis appear with symptoms similar to common cold symptoms such as runny nose, occasional cough and low fever. Babies infected by the bacteria experience apnea - a pause in their breathing. More severe symptoms appear about 1-2 weeks later, during the paroxysmal stage. These symptoms include fits of rapid, uncontrollable coughs followed by deep breaths that produce a loud "whooping" sound. Vomiting and exhaustion after coughing fits (also known as paroxysms) can occur. These paroxysms may occur up to 10 weeks. The convalescent stage follows; recovery is very slow and the patient is susceptible to other respiratory infections. Coughing becomes milder but can persist for many more months.

Babies who are infected with pertussis may not exhibit coughing fits. Instead, they stop breathing and turn blue.

Transmission of Pertussis

Pertussis is a contagious disease that is spread among humans by sneezing or coughing, or sharing the same breathing space with a person with pertussis. Babies often get the infection from siblings or their caregivers. Pertussis is highly contagious during the first 2 weeks after the coughing occurs.

Pertussis is only found in humans and cannot be transmitted by other organisms.

Complications of Pertussis

Babies and Children

Pertussis can be a deadly disease for babies and children, especially babies younger than 1 year old. About half of babies with pertussis require hospital care and experience other complications such as pneumonia, convulsions, apnea, and encephalopathy. About 1% of babies with pertussis die.

Teens and Adults

Teens and adults with pertussis experience less serious complications from the disease. About 5% of this age group require hospital care. Most complications for teens and adults with pertussis are pneumonia, weight loss, loss of bladder control, passing out, or rib fractures from the coughing fits.

Recommended Control of Pertussis

DTap Vaccine

The most effective way to prevent pertussis is vaccination. Because pertussis is very similar to the common cold at the onset of the disease, many people are unaware that they have pertussis.

In the United States, the vaccine recommended against pertussis is DTaP. DTaP is a combination vaccine that protects against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis. Children are recommended to be given a total of 5 doses of DTaP. A dose is usually given at age 2, 4 and 6 months, one dose between 15 to 18 months, and another dose between 4 to 6 years of age. DTaP vaccine protection fades overtime and a booster shot is recommended every 10 years for teens and adults. This booster shot is available as Tdap.


Because pertussis is spread by coughing or sneezing, or being in close contact with other people, practicing good hygiene behaviors can help reduce the risk of getting pertussis. Good hygiene behaviors include covering your mouth and nose while sneezing, washing hands often with soap and water, and disposing of used tissue properly.

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