Whooping cough also called pertussis is a rare disease due to a bacterium called Bordetella pertussis. The classic signs of this disease are usually seen in children and include cold-like symptoms, a runny nose, scratchy eyes, and low-grade fever, followed by severe coughing spells that can last 1-2 minutes. These coughing spells can occur for 1-6 weeks with an average of 15 coughing spells per day with the spells being more common at night. These long episodes of coughing end in a whoop-like sound.. During the coughing spell the child may turn blue. Vomiting and exhaustion usually follow these coughing spells.
Severe complications can occur and include pneumonia, seizures, encephalopathy (damage to the brain), and death. The most common complication being pneumonia. The younger the person is when getting the disease the more likely they are to have complications. For instance 70 percent of children under 6 months of age with pertussis need to be hospitalized however, less than 10 percent of 5-9 year olds need to be hospitalized.
Fortunately pertussis is a rare disease. It is rare because a vaccine is now given to nearly all children in the industrialized world to prevent this disease. The vaccine was given to children starting in the 1940’s. In the last few years a newer and safer vaccine is routinely given to children. As a result, only about 3,700 pertussis cases per year have been reported in the United States since 1980. However, before routine vaccination programs were begun for this disease over 200,000 cases per year of pertussis were reported in the United States alone. In countries that can’t afford or do not require routine pertussis vaccination whooping cough is still a major health problem for their children. This preventable disease still kills over 300,000 children each year in the world.
Unfortunately, pertussis vaccination cannot be stopped even if all childhood pertussis were prevented. Pertussis vaccination is given when children are young. The last pertussis shot is administered when the child is 4-6 years of age. With time immunity to this bacterium goes down and teenagers and adults can get pertussis. The symptoms in teenagers and adults are less severe. Usually the person has a chronic cough (lasts longer than 7 days). Coughing episodes can end with gagging or vomiting however complications are rare. In some studies up to 13 percent of adults with chronic cough have pertussis. These teenagers and adults with pertussis can infect children that have not been vaccinated.