Whooping Cough
(Pertussis)

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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.
  • Adults may develop whooping cough as their immunity from childhood 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. 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 2010, a pertussis epidemic was declared in California. This outbreak included 9,143 cases of pertussis (including 10 infant deaths) throughout California. This was the highest number of cases reported in an outbreak since 1947. In the previous epidemic of 2005, California recorded 3,182 cases and eight deaths.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 9/9/2013

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Whooping Cough Symptoms

Whooping cough (also named pertussis) is a term that is used to describe the infectious disease caused by small Gram-negative bacteria named Bordetella pertussis. 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.