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Last updated on Saturday, March 30, 2013


If your cough sounds a little like a seal barking, be careful—you might not just have the common cold or a regular cough. Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, gets its name from the distinctive whooping sound that infected people sometimes produce when they inhale after a coughing fit. The disease occurs when Bordetella pertussis bacteria infects the upper respiratory system and release toxins that interfere with the respiratory tract's ability to function properly. Many people, especially adults, do not have the characteristic barking cough and just a cough that just won't go away.


Although whooping cough is deadliest among infants, the disease can also affect children and adults. Whooping cough is transmitted when infected individuals cough and sneeze, releasing the pertussis bacteria into the air. Because of the highly contagious nature of this disease, infected adolescents and adults should keep away from infants (and vice versa).

Symptoms and Complications

Early-stage pertussis produces symptoms similar to those of a common cold: runny nose, mild cough, and low-grade fever. At this stage, infected individuals are typically unaware that they have whooping cough and may not seek treatment. This is especially worrisome because infected individuals are most contagious during this early period. With the progression of the disease, symptoms characteristic of pertussis often begin to surface. These include extreme fatigue after coughing, and rapid coughing fits followed by a whooping sound (this characteristic finding is often absent in adults). Additionally, pertussis may cause very serious complications such as pneumonia, ear infections, epilepsy, convulsions, and brain disorder. Pertussis causes death in approximately 1 out of 100 infants.


Pertussis is treated using antibiotics such as erythromycin, but the medicine will be less effective if the disease is diagnosed late. In addition to decreasing the severity of the disease, treatment is also important for reducing the transmission of the disease to others.


The most effective means of prevention against pertussis is vaccination. The DTaP vaccine, a recommended childhood immunization, protects against pertussis, tetanus, and diphtheria. For maximum immunity, children should get 5 DTaP vaccines at ages 2 months, 4 months, 6 months, 15 to 18 months, and 4 to 6 years. Since the vaccination protection weakens over time, people between the ages 11 and 64 should get the Tdap booster once to boost immunity against all three bacterial illnesses. Receiving the booster is especially important for adults who interact frequently with infants.

Tags: childrencoughinginfantspertussiswhooping cough


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