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Whooping Cough: What You Need to Know

An Interview With CDC Infectious Disease Expert Tom Clark
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD

What do we all need to know about whooping cough (pertussis)? WebMD asked epidemiologist Tom Clark, MD, MPH, of the CDC's National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.

What is whooping cough?

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Whooping cough is a bacterial infection that's highly contagious, and it's also vaccine preventable. Especially in young kids and unvaccinated people, it causes a severe cough, which is the reason for the name, "whooping cough."

What kind of infection causes whooping cough?

It's caused by bacteria called Bordetella pertussis.

What are the symptoms of whooping cough?

It starts like a cold, with congestion and upper respiratory symptoms, and then progresses to a cough. You have fits of coughing that are so severe that you can't stop or catch your breath.

It's that severe, prolonged cough, and especially the characteristic paroxysms [uncontrolled fits] of cough that trigger physicians to be worried about pertussis and try to confirm the diagnosis.

The symptoms are pretty nonspecific, and so doctors don't always suspect it. Pertussis is high on the list if that whoop is present. The “whoop” sounds like a sharp gasping intake of breath after all the air has been coughed out of your lungs. If it's not, it's likely to go unrecognized because there aren't really other signs and symptoms that are as characteristic.

How does whooping cough spread from person to person?

It spreads through close contact with oral secretions or respiratory droplets. So it's easily spread through the cough, especially when people are in close contact, like living in the same house with a person who has whooping cough. It can also be spread through sneezes - anything that spreads respiratory secretions.

Who is most at risk for whooping cough?

The highest incidence is in infants, and they're also at greatest risk for complications if they develop the disease. In fact, the great majority of fatal cases in the country each year are in infants less than 6 months of age, especially if they're too young to have received their first vaccination.

How is whooping cough treated?

It's a bacterial infection, so it can be treated with antibiotics, usually erythromycin or a family of antibiotics like erythromycin. Erythromycin is taken for 2 weeks.

If antibiotics are recommended, they should take all the doses and finish the recommended course. It's important for a couple of reasons. If the child's doctor feels that antibiotics are necessary, it's important to take the doses on time to develop and maintain the appropriate antibiotic levels in the blood to clear the infection. And missing a dose or stopping early can sometimes result in a relapse. It's also important in general, because one of the things that promotes antibiotic resistance in bacteria is stopping and starting [antibiotics].

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