What Causes Pertussis in Adults?

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  • Written By: Debra Durkee
  • Edited By: Daniel Lindley
  • Last Modified Date: 20 September 2018
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Pertussis is another name for whooping cough, and while the disease is much better known for its development in children, pertussis in adults is also very common. It is caused by a bacterial infection that spreads through the air, often in the distinctive cough that gives the illness its name. It cannot be spread by breathing the same air as an infected individual, but it is contained in water vapors expelled with coughing or sneezing. The name of the bacteria, Bordetella pertussis, gives the condition its lesser-known name.

The symptoms of pertussis in adults may not appear for up to three weeks after the individual has been infected, but he or she may be contagious during this time and spread the bacteria to friends, family, and coworkers in an unassuming cough or sneeze. Symptoms generally begin with a cough that gets gradually worse and finally develops into the distinctive whooping cough in children, along with possible vomiting and fever. Even once the cough progresses, many adults do not realize they have pertussis as the whooping sound is typically only produced in children.


Most instances of pertussis in adults happen because of exposure in the home. Even though many children are vaccinated, the vaccination is not foolproof and only tends to make symptoms more mild. These milder symptoms may seem like an ordinary cold, which parents and other adult household members are then exposed to. As adults generally do not have the vaccination, they tend to develop full-blown pertussis. Slightly less than half of all individuals exposed to the bacteria develop the disease.

A high percentage of young children who contract the disease are hospitalized for care. This can result in another common reason pertussis in adults is so common; when those caring for children are exposed, they can contract the disease. It is also not uncommon for children to be hospitalized without a proper diagnosis of pertussis, in which case it can also spread quickly among doctors, staff, and in turn their families.

Booster shots can be given for adults who have already been vaccinated against pertussis. Health care workers, medical professionals, day care workers, and teachers are at a high risk for exposure to the bacteria, and it is suggested that anyone frequently around children or the elderly be vaccinated. Individuals traveling to countries where pertussis is common should also be vaccinated, as it is also common for pertussis in adults to occur when travelers return home infected with the bacteria.



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