Whooping Cough

Whooping Cough

Also called: Pertussis, Bordetella Pertussis Infection

Reviewed By:
David Slotnick, M.D.


Whooping cough (pertussis) is a highly contagious infection of the upper respiratory tract that causes inflammation of the breathing passages and episodes of intense coughing. During the first two weeks of this infection, symptoms may resemble those of a cold, asthma or allergy (e.g., coughing, sneezing). During a pertussis-related coughing fit, coughing can become so intense, and breathing so difficult, that a person ends up gasping for breath after it finally subsides. The effort to get air in quickly through narrowed airway passages produces the characteristic “whooping” sound that gives the infection its distinctive name.

Whooping cough primarily affects children, but also can afflict teens and adults. Since the 1940s, infants born in the United States have had access to the DTP vaccine, which immunizes them against whooping cough (as well as tetanus and diphtheria). As a result, the spread of whooping cough has been largely contained in recent decades, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). However, the 1980s and 1990s saw a rise in the number of new infections. Many of those becoming infected are infants younger than 6 months old, when most children are still not fully vaccinated against whooping cough in the United States.

Whooping cough is more common in females than males.Healthcare experts stress that vaccinations remain the best way to prevent whooping cough. Over time, the vaccine itself wears off, and a person becomes less protected from the infection, although booster shots are now available for adolescents and adults. Teens and adults who get the whooping cough infection tend to have far milder symptoms than infants and children. The CDC recommends booster shots for teens and adults.

About whooping cough

Whooping cough (pertussis) is an upper respiratory infection caused by Bordetella pertussis bacteria. These bacteria live in the saliva and nasal mucus of an infected person. People become infected by inhaling tiny, contaminated droplets from the sneeze or cough of an already infected person.

Once inside the body, pertussis bacteria produce toxins that prevent the respiratory tract from eliminating germs. The bacteria also create chemicals that cause inflammation and damage the lining of breathing passages, specifically the nasopharynx, which is where the nasal passages meet the back of the throat.

People with whooping cough have fits of violent coughing that can leave them gasping for breath. The attempt to inhale quickly through narrowed breathing passages causes the typical, high-pitched “whooping” sound that gives the infection its common name. It appears that the coughing itself is the result of trying to expel thick mucus from the lungs and throat.

Complications of whooping cough may include seizures, stopped breathing (apnea), ear infections and brain damage. In rare cases, whooping cough can be fatal, especially for infants. Secondary bacterial pneumonia is the major cause of these deaths.

Before the vaccine became available, more than 200,000 cases of whooping cough were reported each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Today, that number has been reduced to about 5,000 to 7,000 cases annually.

In the past two decades, there has been a steady increase in the number of new cases of whooping cough, with cyclical spikes every three to five years. Most of these new cases occur in children younger than 6 months, who are not yet fully immunized against the infection. Some physicians are urging new research that will allow earlier vaccinations to protect infants. In many cases, teens and adults are responsible for spreading whooping cough to children. The vaccine that prevents whooping cough during childhood usually wears off by early adulthood.  As a result, college campuses and nursing homes have become fertile ground for outbreaks of whooping cough, which is then spread to infants who are not yet fully immunized.

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