Whooping cough (pertussis) is a highly contagious bacterial
infection (Bordetella pertussis or B. parapertussis bacteria) of the upper respiratory system, specifically
the area where the nasal passages meet the back of the throat (nasopharynx).
The infection causes irritated airways and severe coughing spells that often
lead to a characteristically loud whooping or crowing sound as air is
Symptoms can occur in three distinct stages that altogether may
last 6 to 10 weeks or longer. The first stage is symptoms that resemble a cold, including
sneezing, runny nose, and mild coughing. The second stage is a dry, hacking
cough that changes to bursts of uncontrollable, often violent coughing. The
third stage is a cough that sounds worse. Severe coughing spells may cause
vomiting, exhaustion, and a blue tint to the skin and nail beds.
Although whooping cough can occur at any age, it is of greatest
concern in children younger than 4 months and adults age 60 or older, because
their risk of complications is higher than that of other people. The disease
may be prevented or controlled if a child gets periodic immunizations with the
pertussis vaccine around 2 months to 6 years of age. But the protection
provided by the vaccine wears off over time. A booster shot is recommended for
teens and adults.
Taking antibiotics early in the illness may help shorten the
illness or prevent it from progressing to the stage in which severe coughing
spells occur. Babies who have whooping cough may need hospitalization, especially
when they are younger than 4 months of age.
Complications include infection (such as pneumonia) or problems
related to the straining during coughing spells, such as a hernia. In rare
cases, whooping cough can cause death.
August 31, 2012
John Pope, MD - Pediatrics & W. David Colby IV, MSc, MD, FRCPC - Infectious Disease
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