What you need to know about pertussis (whooping cough)

Pertussis, commonly known as whooping cough, is a highly contagious disease. Read on to find out more about this disease and how to protect yourself and your loved ones.

What is pertussis?

Pertussis (commonly known as whooping cough) is an acute and infectious disease of the respiratory tract, caused by the bacteria, Bordetella pertussis. It is characterised by severe coughing spells that end in a “whooping” sound when the person breathes in.1

Pertussis is an important cause of infant death worldwide and continues to be a public health concern even in countries with high vaccination coverage.2

whooping cough

Is pertussis contagious? How is it transmitted?

Pertussis is spread by coughing or sneezing while in close contact with others, who then breathe in the bacteria. As pertussis is highly contagious, it can be easily spread between family members and people in close contact with an infected person.3

Many infants who get pertussis are infected by older siblings, parents or caregivers who might not even know they have the disease.3

Who is most vulnerable to getting pertussis?

Most pertussis cases occur in children under five years of age, with children less than one year old being the most seriously affected. Infants, 6 months of age and below, who have not received the full dose (at least three shots) of the pertussis vaccine are vulnerable to getting pertussis. 1

whooping cough

Outbreaks of pertussis occur in most teenagers and adults whose immunity against the bacteria from previous pertussis vaccination has worn off because protection from immunisation only lasts 5-10 years after the last dose. 1

What are the signs and symptoms of pertussis?

Symptoms start between an average of 7-10 days after exposure to the bacteria. It can start off like an ordinary cold (runny nose, sneezing, cough, fever) for 7-14 days, but tends to worsen with periods of uncontrolled coughing that can last 1-2 months. An infected individual has cough episodes that may end in vomiting or a "whoop" sound when he tries to breathe in. The “whoop” sound may not be heard from an adult who has pertussis, as an adult’s airway is wider. 1

whooping cough

What are the possible complications of pertussis?

In babies, pertussis can be very serious and can even be fatal, with unvaccinated and partially vaccinated babies at particular risk.3 Pertussis, when severe, can lead to pneumonia, fits, brain damage and in rare cases, even death. Most hospitalizations and deaths from pertussis occur in babies under 12 months of age.4

In older children and adults, pertussis is generally milder; however, they can still experience prolonged bouts of coughing for many weeks, resulting in sleep disturbances and in rare cases, pneumonia, rib fracture and seizures.5

What is the treatment for pertussis?

Pertussis is generally treated with antibiotics and early treatment is very important. Treatment may make the infection less severe if it is started early, before coughing fits begin. Treatment can also help prevent spreading the disease to close contacts (people who have spent a lot of time around the infected person). 3

How do I prevent pertussis?

Vaccination can protect against pertussis.3

In Singapore, the pertussis vaccination is given routinely together with vaccinations for diphtheria, tetanus, and HiB (Haemophilus Influenzae type B) to infants in one injection called DPT/HiB.1

whooping cough

However, immunisation in adults helps reduce the risk of transmission of infection to babies who are too young to be fully immunised themselves. 3

Adults, particularly parents, are an important source of pertussis infection for young babies.6 New parents, adults planning to have a baby, grandparents and those caring for young babies should speak to their doctors about early protection against pertussis.7

If you need more information on pertussis and how to protect yourself and your family from the disease, speak to your doctor.

References:

  1. Health Promotion Board (2012): HPB Online: Whooping Cough; Available from: www.hpb.gov.sg/diseases/article.aspx?id=584; Last viewed 14th May 2014
  2. World health Organization: Pertussis; Available from: www.who.int/immunization/topics/pertussis/en/; Last viewed 14th May 2014
  3. Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (2010): Pertussis (Whooping Cough) homepage; Available from: www.cdc.gov/pertussis/about/index.html; Last viewed 14th May 2014
  4. Mattoo S, Cherry JD. Molecular pathogenesis, epidemiology, and clinical manifestations of respiratory infections due to Bordetella pertussis and other Bordetella subspecies. Clin Microbiol Rev 2005;18(2):326-382
  5. Wilder-Smith A, Ng S, Earnest A (2006): Seroepidemiology of Pertussis in the Adult Population of Singapore; Ann Acad Med Singapore;35:780-2
  6. Bisgard KM et al. Infant pertussis: who was the source? Pediatr Infect Dis J 2004;23:985-989
  7. Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (2011): Updated Recommendations for Use of Tetanus Toxoid, Reduced Diphtheria Toxoid and Acellular Pertussis Vaccine (Tdap) in Pregnant Women and Persons Who Have or Anticipate Having Close Contact with an Infant Aged <12 Months — Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP), 2011MMWR report Vol. 60, No. 41, pg 1424

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