Pertussis, or whooping cough, is a respiratory infection caused by Bordetella pertussis. Usually, it happens in infants under six months who have not been vaccinated, or kids over 11 whose immunity as a result of the vaccination is fading. The early signs and symptoms of whooping cough are easily confused with a common cold.

The History of Whooping Cough:

A good vaccine is now available for pertussis. Before this, however, some 9,000 people a year in this country died as a result of this disease. Today, fewer than 20 die each year. However, there has been a slight increase in the incidence of the disease once again. In 2012, 50,000 cases were reported, which is the highest it has been since the 1950s.

Early Signs and Symptoms of Whooping Cough:

As stated earlier, the early signs and symptoms of whooping cough are similar to that of a cold. These include a low fever, mild cough, sneezing, and a runny nose. However, some one or two weeks later, an irritating, dry cough will start to develop and this will gradually turn into serious coughing spells. These spells can last as long as a minute, during which time the patient can turn purple or red. Once the spell is finished, patients may make a whooping sound, and they may vomit. Not all patients make the whooping sound, however.


One of the biggest problems with pertussis is that it is highly contagious. The droplets that are emitted during coughs or sneezes, or even laughs, can become airborne and infect someone in the vicinity. The disease is the most contagious when the illness has just started, and this lasts for about two weeks. The problem is that it is often confused with the common cold, so those infected are likely to infect others without realizing that they have the disease. Sometimes, antibiotic treatment is offered, which doesn’t cure the illness, but it does shorten the length of contagiousness.


It is possible to prevent pertussis through a vaccine, which is the DTaP. Five doses of this are given to children under six. Between the ages of 11 and 18, children should get the Tdap booster, preferably before they turn 13. This is a similar vaccine, but concentrations are lower. Adults are often also offered these vaccines, as are pregnant women in their second trimester. People who have regular contact with infants should always be vaccinated, as they could otherwise infect those who are most at risk of developing serious complications.

If you know that you have been around someone with whooping cough, and you have not been vaccinated, then you will likely be given antibiotics. In fact, even those who are vaccinated tend to be given antibiotics as a preventative measure. If children have started to receive their DTaP, but don’t have all five doses yet, they are likely to be given a booster.


The incubation period of pertussis is seven to 10 days from the onset of infection. However, the incubation period can also be much longer, sometimes even 21 days. Hence, if you know you have been in contact with someone, you may have to wait a month or more before you know whether you have it or not, since the early symptoms appear like a cold.