Pertussis (Whooping Cough): Symptoms, Diagnosis, Prevention


Pertussis, also known as whooping cough, is a highly contagious bacterial infection caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis. While pertussis was once a major cause of infant mortality, widespread vaccination programs have reduced its prevalence significantly. Nevertheless, pertussis remains a public health concern, especially for infants and young children.

Pertussis (Whooping Cough)

Symptoms of Pertussis:

Pertussis can be a severe and distressing illness. The disease progresses through several stages, each marked by distinct symptoms:

1. Catarrhal Stage:

  • Runny nose
  • Mild cough
  • Sneezing
  • Low-grade fever
  • Conjunctivitis (red and inflamed eyes)

2. Paroxysmal Stage:

  • Severe, repetitive coughing fits
  • High-pitched “whoop” sound when inhaling after coughing
  • Vomiting or exhaustion after coughing fits
  • Difficulty breathing or turning blue during coughing fits
  • These coughing fits can last for several weeks, often disrupting sleep and daily activities.

3. Convalescent Stage:

  • Gradual improvement in coughing fits
  • Lingering cough that may persist for weeks or even months

Causes and Transmission:

Understanding the causes and transmission of pertussis is crucial for preventing its spread:

1. Bacterium Bordetella Pertussis:

  • Pertussis is caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis, which releases toxins that damage the respiratory tract.
  • The bacteria are highly contagious and can be transmitted through respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

2. High Infectiousness:

  • Pertussis is one of the most contagious vaccine-preventable diseases, with an estimated 12 to 17 people infected by one person with pertussis.
  • Infants and young children are at the highest risk of severe complications and death.

3. Vaccine Protection:

  • Vaccination with the DTaP or Tdap vaccine (diphtheria, tetanus, and acellular pertussis) provides immunity against pertussis.
  • Boosters may be required in adolescence and adulthood to maintain immunity.


Diagnosing pertussis can be challenging, as the symptoms often resemble those of other respiratory infections. A healthcare provider will typically use the following methods to confirm a diagnosis:

1. Clinical Evaluation:

  • The distinctive “whoop” sound and paroxysmal coughing fits are strong indicators.
  • The catarrhal stage may resemble a common cold, making early diagnosis difficult.

2. Laboratory Tests:

  • Nasopharyngeal swabs are collected and analyzed through polymerase chain reaction (PCR) or culture to detect the presence of Bordetella pertussis.

Treatment Options:

The management of pertussis involves a combination of supportive care and antibiotics. Prompt treatment is essential, especially for infants and young children, to prevent complications and further spread of the disease:

1. Antibiotics:

  • The primary treatment for pertussis is a course of antibiotics, most commonly azithromycin or erythromycin.
  • Antibiotics are most effective when administered during the catarrhal stage or early in the paroxysmal stage.

2. Supportive Care:

  • Patients should receive plenty of rest and fluids.
  • Humidifiers and saline nasal sprays can help relieve congestion.
  • Small, frequent meals are recommended to prevent vomiting during coughing fits.

3. Hospitalization:

  • Severe cases, particularly in infants, may require hospitalization.
  • Hospitalization can provide access to oxygen therapy and respiratory support.

4. Quarantine:

  • Infected individuals should be isolated to prevent the spread of pertussis to others, especially to unvaccinated infants.


Preventing pertussis is the most effective strategy to combat this highly contagious disease. Key prevention measures include:

1. Vaccination:

  • Immunization is the most powerful tool against pertussis.
  • Infants and young children should receive the DTaP vaccine, followed by booster shots.
  • Adolescents and adults should receive the Tdap vaccine, which includes a pertussis component.

2. Cocooning Strategy:

  • Encouraging vaccination of family members and close contacts to protect infants who are not yet fully immunized.
  • Pregnant women should receive the Tdap vaccine during each pregnancy to provide passive immunity to their newborns.

3. Good Hygiene:

  • Frequent handwashing and respiratory etiquette, such as covering coughs and sneezes, can reduce the risk of transmission.
  • Infected individuals should stay home and avoid close contact with others.

4. Public Health Measures:

  • Public health agencies play a vital role in surveillance, outbreak response, and educating the public about pertussis.
  • Timely reporting and case management are essential to control outbreaks.

Pertussis in the Modern Era:

Despite the availability of effective vaccines, pertussis remains a significant public health concern for several reasons:

1. Vaccine Hesitancy:

  • Some parents choose not to vaccinate their children due to misinformation or concerns about vaccine safety.
  • This can lead to pockets of unvaccinated individuals, creating opportunities for pertussis outbreaks.

2. Waning Immunity:

  • Immunity from the pertussis vaccine may decrease over time.
  • Adolescents and adults who have not received booster shots are susceptible to infection and can transmit the disease.

3. Newer Pertussis Vaccines:

  • Research is ongoing to develop improved pertussis vaccines with longer-lasting protection.
  • These vaccines aim to reduce the incidence of the disease and limit its transmission.


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