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Whooping cough (pertussis) is a highly contagious respiratory tract infection

From Mayo Clinic News Network, Mayo Clinic News Network on

Published in Health & Fitness

In many people, whooping cough (pertussis) is marked by a severe hacking cough followed by a high-pitched intake of breath that sounds like "whoop."

Before the vaccine was developed, whooping cough was considered a childhood disease. Now whooping cough primarily affects children too young to have completed the full course of vaccinations and teenagers and adults whose immunity has faded.

Deaths associated with whooping cough are rare but most commonly occur in infants. That's why it's so important for pregnant women - and other people who will have close contact with an infant - to be vaccinated against whooping cough.

Symptoms

Once you become infected with whooping cough, it takes about seven to 10 days for signs and symptoms to appear, though it can sometimes take longer. They're usually mild at first and resemble those of a common cold:

Runny nose

Nasal congestion

Red, watery eyes

Fever

Cough

After a week or two, signs and symptoms worsen. Thick mucus accumulates inside your airways, causing uncontrollable coughing. Severe and prolonged coughing attacks may:

Provoke vomiting

Result in a red or blue face

Cause extreme fatigue

End with a high-pitched "whoop" sound during the next breath of air

However, many people don't develop the characteristic whoop. Sometimes, a persistent hacking cough is the only sign that an adolescent or adult has whooping cough.

Infants may not cough at all. Instead, they may struggle to breathe, or they may even temporarily stop breathing.

When to see a health care provider

Call your doctor if prolonged coughing spells cause you or your child to:

Vomit

Turn red or blue

Seem to be struggling to breathe or have noticeable pauses in breathing

 

Inhale with a whooping sound

Causes

Whooping cough is caused by a type of bacteria called Bordetella pertussis. When an infected person coughs or sneezes, tiny germ-laden droplets are sprayed into the air and breathed into the lungs of anyone who happens to be nearby.

Risk factors

The whooping cough vaccine you receive as a child eventually wears off. This leaves most teenagers and adults susceptible to the infection during an outbreak - and there continue to be regular outbreaks.

Infants who are younger than age 12 months who are unvaccinated or haven't received the full set of recommended vaccines have the highest risk for severe complications and death.

Complications

Teens and adults often recover from whooping cough with no problems. When complications occur, they tend to be side effects of the strenuous coughing, such as:

Bruised or cracked ribs

Abdominal hernias

Broken blood vessels in the skin or the whites of your eyes

Infants

In infants - especially those under 6 months of age - complications from whooping cough are more severe and may include:

Pneumonia

Slowed or stopped breathing

Dehydration or weight loss due to feeding difficulties

Seizures

Brain damage

Because infants and toddlers are at greatest risk of complications from whooping cough, they're more likely to need treatment in a hospital. Complications can be life-threatening for infants younger than 6 months old.

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