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: Jay W. Marks, MD
    Jay W. Marks, MD

    Jay W. Marks, MD

    Jay W. Marks, MD, is a board-certified internist and gastroenterologist. He graduated from Yale University School of Medicine and trained in internal medicine and gastroenterology at UCLA/Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.

View Whooping Cough (Pertussis) Slideshow

Quick GuidePertussis and Whooping Cough Pictures Slideshow: Is Your Child Protected?

Pertussis and Whooping Cough Pictures Slideshow: Is Your Child Protected?

How long does whooping cough last?

It can take up to three weeks after exposure to develop symptoms, although symptoms usually develop within five to 10 days after infection. The paroxysmal stage, characterized by the coughing fits, usually lasts from one to six weeks but can last for up to 10 weeks. The third and final stage (convalescent stage) lasts about two to three weeks.

What does whooping cough sound like?

As mentioned above, the characteristic cough of pertussis occurs in the second or paroxysmal stage of the illness. There is a series or burst of rapid coughs. At the end of these coughs, a long inspiratory effort (breathing in) is usually accompanied by a high-pitched whoop sound for which the disease is named.

How is whooping cough transmitted?

Whooping cough is highly contagious and is spread among people by direct contact with fluids from the nose or mouth of infected people. People contaminate their hands with respiratory secretions from an infected person and then touch their own mouth or nose. In addition, small bacteria-containing droplets of mucus from the nose or lungs enter the air during coughing or sneezing. People can become infected by breathing in these drops.

Can adults get whooping cough?

Although whooping cough is considered to be an illness of childhood, adults may also develop the disease even if they were vaccinated as children. Because immunity from the pertussis vaccine decreases over time but does not necessarily disappear, adults who do become infected may have retained a partial degree of immunity against the infection that results in a milder illness. Although the illness usually is milder in adults than in children, the duration of the paroxysmal cough lasts just as long as in children. The characteristic whoop that occurs after paroxysmal bouts of coughing is recognized in only 20%-40% of adults with whooping cough.

Whooping cough in adults is more common than usually appreciated, accounting for up to 7% of adult illnesses that cause coughing each year. Infected adults are a reservoir (source) of infection for children, so it is particularly important that all family members and caregivers of young infants be properly vaccinated.

How is whooping cough diagnosed?

When a patient has the typical symptoms of whooping cough, the diagnosis can be made from the clinical history. However, the disease and its symptoms, including its severity, can vary among affected individuals. In cases in which the diagnosis is not certain or a doctor wants to confirm the diagnosis, laboratory tests can be carried out. Culture of the bacterium Bordetella pertussis from nasal secretions can establish the diagnosis. Another test that has been used to successfully identify the bacterium and diagnose whooping cough is the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test that can identify genetic material from the bacterium in nasal secretions.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 9/28/2015

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