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What is Pertussis?

By J. Beam
Updated: May 17, 2024

Pertussis, better known as whooping cough, is an acute respiratory infection caused by Bordetella pertussis bacterium. It is a highly contagious disease that most commonly affects young children, however older teens and adults are susceptible to it and many do catch it because their immunity from vaccination as a child has worn off. Though this disease poses serious health risks, it can be treated if diagnosed in early stages and closely monitored throughout.

Responsible for a catastrophic number of deaths prior to its isolation in 1906, an immunization vaccine is now available for protection against pertussis. The vaccine is given through a series of injections and frequently in conjunction with diptheria and tuberculosis, as the DPT. The DPT vaccine remains the most common version of the childhood immunization, but a number of children have had adverse reactions to it, and other variations have been developed. Experts believe that the pertussis vaccine loses its effectiveness during the teen years and now recommend that older teens receive a booster vaccination.

Pertussis has an incubation period ranging from seven to as many as 30 days. The disease has three stages of development. The first stage, which is known as the catarrhal stage, develops in the first one to two weeks and is marked by symptoms common to other upper respiratory infections. Runny nose, sneezing, low-grade fever, and mild cough are all early stage symptoms. Typically, because the symptoms mimic the common cold, diagnosis doesn’t come until the second stage.

During the second stage, the lingering cough becomes gradually worse. It’s common for sufferers to experience bursts of coughing spasms triggered by the body’s failed attempts to dispel the mucus build up in the respiratory track. After coughing, inhalation is marked by a tell-tale whistling or whooping sound. Breathing can be difficult and even labored during this stage.

The final, or convalescent stage, is the recovery stage and may take an additional three to ten weeks. Coughing spasms become less frequent and breathing becomes easier, however lingering affects of pertussis can still cause some discomfort and fatigue. It is best if treatment is administered before this final stage.

Antibiotics are used to treat pertussis, and they are most effective at reducing the severity of the disease if administered during the earlier stages. Complications that can arise, especially in young children, include further upper respiratory problems like asthma, malnutrition, and rarely seizures. The number one risk associated with the disease is secondary bacterial pneumonia. The majority of deaths related to pertussis occur in infants and very young children. If a parent suspects his or her child has been exposed to the bacteria or is exhibiting symptoms related to the disease, he or she should take the child to a medical professional as soon as possible.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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