Is Whooping Cough (Pertussis) Contagious?

  • Medical Author:
    Charles Patrick Davis, MD, PhD

    Dr. Charles "Pat" Davis, MD, PhD, is a board certified Emergency Medicine doctor who currently practices as a consultant and staff member for hospitals. He has a PhD in Microbiology (UT at Austin), and the MD (Univ. Texas Medical Branch, Galveston). He is a Clinical Professor (retired) in the Division of Emergency Medicine, UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, and has been the Chief of Emergency Medicine at UT Medical Branch and at UTHSCSA with over 250 publications.

  • Medical Editor: Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

Whooping Cough Prevention & Vaccination

Whooping cough commonly affects infants and young children but can be prevented by immunization with the pertussis vaccine. Pertussis vaccine is most commonly given in combination with the vaccines for diphtheria and tetanus. Since immunity from the pertussis vaccine wears off with time, many teenagers and adults get whooping cough.

What is whooping cough (pertussis)?

Whooping cough (also termed pertussis) is a respiratory disease that is caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis. It results in characteristic fits of coughing (the characteristic noise on inhalation produces a whooping sound) and mild to moderate difficulty with breathing (most noticeable during coughing fits). These symptoms are caused by the release of toxins produced by Bordetella pertussis bacteria that damage the lining of throat cells and cause inflammation and swelling of the throat.

Is whooping cough contagious?

Whooping cough is considered highly contagious and is only found in humans. Coughing or sneezing spreads whooping cough from person to person. The bacteria can live in droplets that become airborne during coughing or sneezing; anyone in close contact with an individual who has whooping cough is likely to be exposed to the disease. Even individuals who have had pertussis vaccine in the past can become infected because the vaccine, and even having the disease, does not confer lifelong protection against whooping cough. Likewise, even individuals who previously had whooping cough are not immune to future episodes of infection. Consequently, pertussis vaccine booster shots are highly recommended and are usually incorporated with other vaccines like diphtheria and tetanus, which have a similar limited time (about five to 10 years) of protection.

How will I know if someone has whooping cough? What are the various stages of pertussis?

Early in the disease patients may have cold-like symptoms (mild cough and/or fever), but after about a week or so, severe coughing can begin. The cold-like symptoms comprise stage one of whooping cough and last about one to two weeks; stage one is termed the catarrhal stage. Stage two, termed the paroxysmal stage, can last from about one to six weeks and consists of fits of rapid coughing (coughing fits) and the characteristic whooping sounds. Stage three, termed the convalescent stage, lasts about two to three weeks with gradual reduction of the coughing fits. The length of time coughing fits last is variable; for example, some individuals will still experience some coughing for as long as about three and a half months. The coughing fits can cause intermittent shortness of breath, vomiting, and fatigue. Unfortunately, usually a person is not diagnosed with whooping cough until stage two, but the person can be contagious during stage one. Individuals with whooping cough are highly contagious during the first two weeks of stage two, but they still can be contagious for about three weeks. Some experts suggest antibiotic therapy reduces contagiousness in individuals with the disease.

Not every person who gets pertussis develops the characteristic coughing fits; if a person, especially an infant or young child, develops a persistent relatively severe cough for a week or more, a physician should be consulted to perform blood tests and cultures for Bordetella pertussis bacteria.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 10/26/2016

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