Pertussis, also known as whooping cough, is a respiratory infection caused by bacteria called Bordetella pertussis. The bacteria attach to and damage cells in the nose, sinuses, trachea (windpipe) and larynx (voicebox). It is a highly contagious disease that spreads through the air when an infected person breathes, coughs or sneezes. It is known for the "whooping" sound heard when a person inhales through a partially closed airway.

As of June 2012, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported pertussis cases are up 44% from the previous year. As of early September, there have been 29,380 cases nationally, a number higher than the previous modern record set in 2010.  Illinois has the fifth largest number of pertussis cases, with 1,359 reported.

Who is at risk for pertussis?
Anyone can get pertussis, but many people are protected against it because they received the recommended vaccine as children. Unvaccinated infants and children are most at risk for severe disease. Many infants catch pertussis from adults and adolescents, who may not know they have it because they may have few symptoms.

What are the symptoms?
The first signs of pertussis are often the same as the common cold. They are most noticeable in infants and young children and are milder in teens and adults. Symptoms include a cough, sore throat and runny nose. The main difference between pertussis and the common cold is the cough, which makes a "whooping" sound. The cough is usually only heard in babies and young children, and often lasts two to six weeks. It is more severe at night and could result in vomiting or a rib fracture.

How is it treated?
The only way to treat pertussis is with antibiotics. If you suspect you or your child has the disease, see a health care provider. The earlier pertussis is detected and treated, the less severe it will become.

If you have pertussis, avoid physical contact with others, cough into a tissue or your elbow, and wash your hands often with soap or alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Cold medicines will not treat pertussis and should not be used unless advised by your health care provider.

Fatalities are rare and usually only occur in young infants, although they have been reported in young adults or elderly people with other health complications.

How can I prevent pertussis?
The best way to prevent pertussis is by getting vaccinated by your health care provider or at your local pharmacy. There are two vaccines to prevent pertussis:

  • DTaP is a series of shots recommended for children 2 months old through 6 years old. It protects against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis. 
  • Tdap is recommended for under-vaccinated children ages 7-10, preteens ages 11 or 12, for all women who are pregnant - preferably between 27 and 36 weeks of gestation, for teens who have not previously been vaccinated with Tdap, and anyone who may be in contact with infants.

Starting in the 2012-2013 school year, Illinois students entering sixth and ninth grade are required to show proof of receiving the Tdap vaccine since 2005. For more information on Pertussis vaccine requirements, visit the Illinois Department of Public Health.

This information can also be viewed in PDF format.

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