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What to Know About Whooping Cough (Pertussis)

Whooping cough starts out as a cold-like illness and progresses to a severe cough. Learn more about this illness, how it's treated, and how to prevent it.

Answers to questions about about pertussis (whooping cough) from McFarland Clinic Pediatrician John Paschen, MD.

What is pertussis?

Pertussis is a respiratory illness that is caused by Bordetella pertussis. It is more commonly known as whooping cough.

Who can get pertussis?

Anyone, but we are more concerned with infants.

How is pertussis spread?

By airborne particles. It is very contagious for people who are susceptible to it.

What are the symptoms of pertussis?

It starts out as a cold-like illness and progresses to a cough. In infants and those not immunized, it will then progress to a characteristic cough. The patient goes into a severe coughing spell, many times turning blue or vomiting. When the spell is over, the patient inhales through a tightened airway and gives the characteristic "whoop" cough. This is a very scary cough. Infants look like they are going to die during one of these episodes. Death from pertussis during infancy is seen, despite maximum therapy. In older children and adults, pertussis can be carried asymptomatically in the nose or can just be a cough that goes on for a long time.

How is pertussis diagnosed?

A nasal swab.

What is the treatment for pertussis?

The use of antibiotics can shorten and reduce the severity of the illness if started early, however this rarely happens since this starts out as looking just like a cold.  The use of antibiotics is indicated to decrease contagiousness.

How can pertussis be prevented?

Vaccination! The DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis) vaccination is given to infants at age 2 months. A DTaP booster is needed for continued protection.

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