Pertussis (Whooping Cough)
What is pertussis?
Pertussis, or whooping cough, is a serious infection of the airways caused by pertussis bacteria (germs).
People of any age can get pertussis. Young children who have not been immunized get sicker than older children and adults.
Pertussis can cause complications such as pneumonia, seizures, brain damage or even death. These complications happen most often in infants under 1 year of age. Each year in Canada 1 to 3 deaths occur due to pertussis, mostly in babies less than 3 months of age, who have not been immunized.
There are a number of pertussis vaccines available in B.C. that protect against pertussis. The pertussis vaccines are provided in combination with other vaccines such as diphtheria, polio and tetanus and are free as part of your child's routine immunizations.
A pertussis vaccine is also available for older children and adults. Since the protection provided by the pertussis vaccines given in childhood lasts between 4 to 10 years, a booster dose of pertussis vaccine is provided free to grade 9 students in B.C. Adults who were not immunized against pertussis as children can also get a dose of the vaccine for free. A booster dose of the pertussis vaccine is recommended for adults who were immunized in childhood. This dose is not provided for free in B.C. but may be available at no cost during an outbreak of pertussis.
For more information about pertussis vaccines see HealthLink BC Files:
- #18c Tetanus, Diphtheria, Pertussis Vaccine
- #105 Diphtheria, Tetanus, Pertussis, Hepatitis B, Polio and Haemophilus Influenzae type B (DTaP-HB-IPV-HIB) Vaccine
How does pertussis spread?
Pertussis spreads easily when an infected person coughs, sneezes or has close contact with others. Sharing food, drinks or cigarettes, or kissing someone who has the pertussis bacteria can also put you at risk. A person with pertussis who does not get treatment can spread the germs to others for up to 3 weeks after the cough starts.
What are the symptoms?
Pertussis starts like a common cold with symptoms such as sneezing, runny nose, mild fever and a mild cough.
Over the next 2 weeks, the cough gets worse, leading to severe, repeated, and forceful coughing spells that often end with a whooping sound before the next breath. The cough of pertussis can last several months and occurs more often at night. The cough can make a person gag or spit out mucous, and make it hard to take a breath. In babies, pertussis can cause periods of apnea in which their breathing is interrupted.
Babies less than 6 months old, teenagers, and adults may not make the whooping sound. Therefore, anyone that could have been exposed to pertussis and who has a cough that lasts more than 1 week, should see a doctor or health care provider.
Is there a treatment?
Pertussis is treated with antibiotics, which help reduce the spread of infection and the duration of illness if taken during the very early stage of the illness.
People at high risk of serious illness who are in close contact with someone with pertussis can be given an antibiotic to prevent the disease. This includes infants less than 1 year of age and pregnant women in the last 3 months of pregnancy, as well as all of their household and daycare contacts.
People who have or may have pertussis should not have contact with babies or young children until they have been properly tested and/or treated for pertussis.
If you have been in contact with a person who has pertussis, you should call your doctor or health care provider for more information.
After seeing a health care provider, the following home treatment tips may help you to be more comfortable while you rest and recover.
- Stay quiet and calm to help prevent coughing.
- Avoid smoke, dust, sudden noises, lights, and other unnecessary stimulation that may trigger coughing.
- Have frequent small drinks of fluid, and make sure to get enough to eat, as coughing requires a lot of energy.
- If humidity helps ease coughing, use a cool mist humidifier in the room. If humidity worsens the cough, avoid it. Dry, hot, or polluted air may worsen coughing.
For more information on immunizations visit Immunize BC at www.immunizebc.ca.