Whooping Cough (Pertussis)

  • Medical Author:
    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.

  • Medical Editor: John Mersch, MD, FAAP
    John Mersch, MD, FAAP

    John Mersch, MD, FAAP

    Dr. Mersch received his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of California, San Diego, and prior to entering the University Of Southern California School Of Medicine, was a graduate student (attaining PhD candidate status) in Experimental Pathology at USC. He attended internship and residency at Children's Hospital Los Angeles.

Whooping Cough Symptoms and Signs

The term "whooping cough" is based on the characteristic noise made as the person at the end of a coughing attack that sounds like a high-pitched "whoop" as the person tries to suck in a breath.

Symptoms of whooping cough vary. Early in the infection, the symptoms resemble those of a cold;

  • mild fever,
  • nasal congestion,
  • sneezing,
  • nasal discharge,
  • a dry cough.

Quick GuideWhooping Cough (Pertussis) Symptoms, Vaccine Facts

Whooping Cough (Pertussis) Symptoms, Vaccine Facts

Whooping cough (pertussis) facts

  • Whooping cough (pertussis) is an acute, highly contagious respiratory infection that is caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis.
  • Whooping cough commonly affects infants and young children but can be prevented by immunization with the pertussis vaccine.
  • Young infants are at greatest risk for complications and even death from the disease.
  • Adults may develop whooping cough as their immunity from vaccines wears off over time.
  • Clinical symptoms occur in three stages; the characteristic bursts of coughing are observed in the second, or paroxysmal, stage.
  • Antibiotics can help reduce the severity of the disease when administered early in the course of the disease.
  • Secondary bacterial pneumonia is the most common complication of whooping cough.

What is whooping cough? What is the history of whooping cough?

Whooping cough is a bacterial upper respiratory infection that leads to episodes of violent coughing. The disease is named for the characteristic sound produced when affected individuals attempt to inhale; the whoop originates from the inflammation and swelling of the laryngeal structures (voice box) that vibrate when there is a rapid inflow of air during inspiration. The whoop in not often appreciated in infants and toddlers but will be recognized in older children, teens, and some adults (rarely). Infants and toddlers are more likely to have recurrent and frequent episodes of violent cough which may cause facial cyanosis (blue skin discoloration) and rarely apnea (cessation of breathing). Whooping cough is highly contagious.

The first outbreaks of whooping cough were described in the 16th century. The bacterium responsible for the infection, Bordetella pertussis, was not identified until 1906. In the pre-vaccination era (during the 1920s and '30s), there were over 250,000 cases of whooping cough per year in the U.S., with up to 9,000 deaths. In the 1940s, the pertussis vaccine, combined with diphtheria and tetanus toxoids (DTP), was introduced. By 1976, the incidence of whooping cough in the U.S. had decreased by over 99%.

During the 1980s, however, the incidence of whooping cough began to increase and has risen steadily, with epidemics typically occurring every three to five years in the U.S. In the epidemic of 2005, 25,616 cases were reported according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In 2008, over 13,000 cases of whooping cough were reported in the U.S., resulting in 18 deaths. In 2010, which included an epidemic in California (see below), 27,550 cases of pertussis were reported nationwide.

In 2012, over 48,000 cases of pertussis infection were reported in the U.S., the highest number of reported cases in one year since 1955.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 10/28/2016

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