What is Whooping Cough (Pertussis)

Whooping cough, otherwise known as pertussis, is a highly contagious bacterial disease which affects the respiratory system and produces spasms of coughing that usually end in a high-pitched sounding deep inspiration of air, which is what is referred to as the “whoop”.

Statistics on Whooping Cough (Pertussis)

The disease occurs worldwide. It has a 90% incidence in children under 5 although no age is exempt.

Risk Factors for Whooping Cough (Pertussis)

About 38% of recognized cases still occur in infants younger than 6 months of age, however with early immunization these figures drop dramatically.

Progression of Whooping Cough (Pertussis)

The disease is caused by Bordatella pertussis. Humans are both the natural hosts and reservoirs of infection. The bacteria is spread by droplet infection. It is a highly contagious disease (especially in the catarrhal stage) and is indistinguishable from other upper respiratory tract infections. The bacteria invade the nose and throat, the breathing tube (trachea), and the lungs.

The infection usually lasts 6 weeks. It starts with symptoms similar to the common cold, and progresses to spasms (paroxysms) of coughing after 10 to 12 days.

How is Whooping Cough (Pertussis) Diagnosed?

The characteristic whoop plus a history of contact with an infected individual suggests a positive diagnosis. Isolation and culture of swabs of nasopharyngeal secretions would confirm the diagnosis.

Prognosis of Whooping Cough (Pertussis)

In older children, the prognosis is generally very good. Infants are the group at the highest risk. Infants less than 6 months of age have a 0.5% to 1% risk of death, which is why they need careful monitoring.

How is Whooping Cough (Pertussis) Treated?

Erythromycin can stop or decrease the severity of the disease if administered in the catarrhal stage. Once the disease has reached the paroxysmal stage, antibiotics can no longer affect the course of the disease much. Affected individuals should be isolated to prevent spread and where necessary, active immunisation should be given.

Whooping Cough (Pertussis) References

  1. Kumar P, Clark M (eds). Clinical Medicine (5th edition). Edinburgh: WB Saunders Company; 2002. Book
  2. Whooping cough [online]. Bethesda, MD: Medline Plus; 2003 [cited 18 July 2003]. Available from: [URL Link]

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