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Girl coughing into hand.

Pertussis, or whooping cough, is a highly contagious respiratory disease caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis.  The key characteristics of pertussis are uncontrollable, violent coughing episodes which often makes it hard to breathe.  The “whooping” sound occurs after coughing fits when the air is gone from your lungs.  Pertussis can occur at any age, but babies less than a year old are at risk for developing severe disease.   The best way to protect against pertussis is by getting vaccinated.

How contagious is pertussis? 

Pertussis spreads easily from person to person through coughing and sneezing.

Who is at risk for developing severe pertussis? 

Pertussis (whooping cough) can cause serious illness in babies, children, teens, and adults.  Babies are at greatest risk for getting pertussis and then having serious complications from it, including death. Approximately half of babies less than 1 year old who get pertussis need treatment in the hospital.

How is pertussis treated?

The recommended antimicrobial agents for treatment of pertussis are azithromycin, clarithromycin, and erythromycin.  Early treatment of pertussis is very important. The earlier a person, especially an infant, starts treatment the better. If a patient starts treatment for pertussis early in the course of illness, during the first 1 to 2 weeks before coughing paroxysms occur, symptoms may be lessened. 

Why are reported cases of pertussis increasing?

Since the early 1980s, there has been an overall trend of an increase in reported pertussis cases. Pertussis is naturally cyclic in nature, with peaks in disease every 3 to 5 years. But for the past few decades, peaks got higher and overall case counts went up. There are several reasons that help explain why CDC is seeing more cases as of late. These include:  Increased awareness, Improved diagnostic tests, Better Reporting, More circulation of the bacteria and Waning immunity. The bacteria that cause pertussis are also always changing at a genetic level. Research is underway to determine if any of the recent changes may contribute to the increase in disease. When it comes to waning immunity, it seems that the acellular pertussis vaccines (DTaP and Tdap) used now may not protect for as long as the whole cell vaccine (DTP) doctors used to use.