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What is Whooping Cough (Pertussis)?

Whooping cough is also known as pertussis. It is a highly contagious infection of the respiratory tract (lungs and throat) caused by a bacteria called Bordetella Pertussis. Infection with whooping cough can cause a mild cough to severe disease.

What are the signs and symptoms of pertussis?

There are 3 stages for pertussis:

Stage 1
  • Starts off with cold-like symptoms, runny nose, sneezing, low-grade fever, and mild occasional cough.
  • Cough usually lasts 1 to 2 weeks then progresses to stage 2.
Stage 2
  • Usually lasts between 1 to 6 weeks but may continue for up to 10 weeks.
  • Cough worsens with numerous bursts of explosive coughing that can interrupt breathing, eating and sleeping and is commonly followed by gagging, vomiting, and exhaustion.
  • Coughing may be followed with loud high-pitched crowing or “whooping” sounds as they struggle to breathe.
  • Fever is absent or minimal.
Stage 3
  • Coughing bursts lessen as you slowly get better.
  • Recovery may take weeks or months.

Anyone who has a cough that lasts more than one week without getting better should see their healthcare provider.

How is it spread?

The pertussis bacteria are found in the nose and mouth of infected people and are spread into the air when they cough, sneeze or talk. By breathing these bacteria into your body you may become sick. When you are ill, your healthcare provider may take a swab from the back of your nose (called a nasopharyngeal swab) to see if you have the pertussis bacteria.

How long is it contagious?

People who have pertussis can pass it on to others for up to 20 days from when symptoms began.  They are most contagious during the first stage of the illness, usually in those first 2 weeks. When treated with antibiotics, the person is no longer considered contagious after five days of effective treatment.

What are the complications?

The disease can affect people of any age, however it is most dangerous for babies and young children. This age group is either too young to receive the vaccine or has not yet had the needed four to five doses of the vaccine. Infants and pregnant women have the highest risk for severe complications. Severe complications can be vomiting after a coughing spell, weight loss, breathing problems, choking spells, pneumonia, convulsions, brain damage, and in rare cases death.

Should I see a healthcare provider?​

Yes, contact your healthcare provider if you think you or your child have come in contact with pertussis and have developed respiratory symptoms.

What is the treatment for pertussis?

Pertussis is usually treated with antibiotics, which are given to control the symptoms and to prevent infected people from spreading the disease. Even with antibiotics the cough may last for many weeks. Therefore, to decrease the spread of the bacteria to others it’s important that infected people stay home from school, work, and other activities. They should also limit visitors until they have finished an appropriate course of antibiotics. It is still possible to get pertussis more than once. Getting the infection does not give you long-term protection from being infected again.

How can pertussis be prevented?

Have you and your children been fully immunized against pertussis?

This is the best way to protect you and your children against pertussis.

  • Expectant parents, adults, and adolescents in close contact with babies and young children should be immunized. The very young will then be surrounded or “cocooned” by those who are immunized. Cocooning protects the very young until they can be fully protected by the vaccine.
  • Children need to complete a series of doses to be fully immunized (given at 2 months, 4 months, 6 months, 18 months, 4-6 years old, 14-16 years old). The 2, 4, and 6 month doses are most important to get on time to prevent complications from pertussis.
  • Adolescents between 14 to 16 years of age should be given a booster dose.
  • Any adults not previously immunized against pertussis should receive a dose.
  • Adults whether they have had a pertussis infection or not, should make sure they receive one dose of pertussis vaccine during adulthood.
  • Pregnant and post-partum women, preferably during the third or late second trimester, after 20 weeks gestation should be given a dose.
  • Consult your healthcare provider if you are unaware of your immunization status.

In addition to getting vaccinated, you can help to reduce your risk of getting infected with pertussis by following these tips:

  • Avoid exposing your baby or young child to people who have coughs and colds.
  • Prevent the spread by coughing and sneezing into tissues and sleeves and cleaning your hands well.

Health Care Providers

Suspected cases are reportable to the Health Unit by the next working day by telephone.  Conduct a nasopharyngeal swab to confirm for pertussis infection.

Exclusions from school and or work are assessed and directed by the Health Unit. Typically, exclude until 5 days after the start of antibiotics or, if no treatment is given, 3 weeks with negative culture or polymerase chain reaction (PCR). People in contact with infected person may need antibiotics or vaccine.

If you have any questions or concerns, please call the Health Unit at 519-258-2146 (ext. 1420) during business hours.

For further information about human diagnostic testing, contact Public Health Ontario Laboratories Customer Service (Consulting with Health Care Providers on laboratory testing) or call toll free: 1-877-604-4567.

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