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Health Information Center


  • Cynthia M. Johnson, MA
Publication Type:



(Whooping Cough )


Pertussis is a bacterial infection that is also known as whooping cough. The bacteria invade the lining of the respiratory tract and can block the airway.

Pertussis spreads easily from person to person. It can be serious.

Upper Respiratory Tract.

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Pertussis is caused by specific bacteria that is spread by:

  • Inhaling droplets from the sneeze or cough of a person infected with pertussis
  • Having direct contact with the mucus of a person infected with pertussis

Risk Factors

Things that may raise the risk of pertussis are:

  • Not being vaccinated against pertussis
  • Living in the same house or working in close contact with someone who has pertussis


Symptoms usually begin within a week or 2 after exposure.

Initial symptoms last about 1 to 2 weeks. They may include:

  • Runny nose and congestion
  • Sneezing
  • Mild fever
  • Mild cough
  • Watery, red eyes

The second stage of pertussis usually lasts 1 to 6 weeks, but can last much longer. Symptoms may include:

  • Severe coughing
  • Long periods of coughing that start suddenly and may end with a forceful inhale or whoop sound in some people
  • Coughing that may cause trouble breathing or turn the skin a blue color from lack of oxygen
  • Periods of coughing that result in vomiting

During the final stage, the cough slowly gets better over 2 to 3 weeks. Periods of coughing can still happen during this stage.

Complications in infants and young children may be:

Complications in teens and adults can include weight loss and problems controlling urine. Rarely, fainting or rib fractures can happen from severe coughing.


The doctor will ask about symptoms and past health. A physical exam will be done. The doctor may suspect pertussis based on symptoms. A swab from nose, throat, or blood may be tested to confirm the results.


Antibiotics will be started as soon as possible. They can keep the infection from spreading to others, but they will usually not improve symptoms or affect the illness. People with severe symptoms may need care in a hospital. Others can recover at home with self care.



The best way to prevent pertussis is with a vaccine. Most children should receive the DTaP vaccine series. This protects against diphtheria , tetanus , and pertussis. Another vaccine called Tdap is given to children aged 11 to 12 after they have completed the DTaP series of shots. There are also catch up schedules for children and adults who have not been fully vaccinated. Td or Tdap boosters are given to adults every 10 years.

Pregnant women should have a dose of Tdap during every pregnancy to protect newborns from pertussis.





  • Immunization schedules. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/schedules/index.html.
  • Pertussis. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: https://www.dynamed.com/condition/pertussis.
  • Pertussis (whooping cough). Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/pertussis.
  • Tdap vaccine. What you need to know. Centers for Disease control and Prevention website. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/hcp/vis/vis-statements/tdap.pdf.


  • David L. Horn, MD, FACP
Last Updated:

This content is reviewed regularly and is updated when new and relevant evidence is made available. This information is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with questions regarding a medical condition.