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The Facts

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Published on January 04, 2017. Last modified on December 02, 2019

Signs and Symptoms

Pertussis can cause serious illness in children and adults.  The disease starts like the common cold, with Mom, Dad and baby playingrunny nose or congestion, sneezing, and maybe mild cough or fever.  After 1 to 2 weeks, severe coughing begins.  Children with the disease cough violently and rapidly, over and over, until the air is gone from their lungs and they’re forced to inhale with a loud “whooping” sound.

Pertussis is worse for very young children; more than half of infants less than 1 year of age who get the disease must be hospitalized.  About 1 in 10 children with pertussis get pneumonia (lung infection), and about 1 in 50 will have convulsions.  In addition, about 1 in 250 people who become infected with pertussis develop a brain disorder called encephalopathy.  In even rarer cases, pertussis can be deadly.

Click here to watch a short video of a boy coughing due to pertussis. 

Transmission (How it Spreads)

Young teen boy leaning against locker with backpackPeople with pertussis usually spread the disease by coughing or sneezing while in close contact with others, who then breathe in the pertussis bacteria.  Many infants who get pertussis are infected by older siblings or parents who might not even know they have the disease.  Infected people can pass the disease on to others from the onset of cold-like symptoms until after 5 days of treatment or until 21 days after cough onset if no (or partial) treatment is given.

It is important that individuals who have been diagnosed with pertussis take antibiotics.  Antibiotics reduce transmission of the disease to others if they are taken for 5 days.  Infected individuals should stay home from work or school until they have taken 5 days of antibiotic treatment for pertussis.