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Written by Ada’s Medical Knowledge Team

Updated on

What is pertussis?

Pertussis, also known as 'whooping cough', is a contagious bacterial infection affecting the respiratory tract, or the passageway connecting the nose, mouth, throat and lungs. It is caused by a bacteria called Bordetella pertussis which produces a toxin causing swelling of the airways. It usually starts with cold-like symptoms for 1-2 weeks, followed by an uncontrollable cough that can last for 10 weeks. However, infants may experience breathing difficulties and not show any signs of coughing.


Pertussis is caused by a bacteria (Bordetella pertussis). Pertussis mostly affects adults, whose immunity after vaccination has become weakened, or infants who have not recieved their first three doses of vaccination. Pertussis is contagious via droplets that are released via sneezing or coughing. Contact with an affected person increases the risk for pertussis.


Typical early symptoms resemble a common cold with runny nose, cough, and fever. Later the typical 'whooping cough' may develop, which can last for up to 10 weeks. The whooping cough is characterized by severe coughing attacks ending with a 'whoop' sound during the next breath of air. Many people may not develop the characteristic 'whooping cough' but experience severe uncontrollable attacks of coughing. Infants may have breathing difficulties but no cough.


The treatment consists of antibiotics and rest. If severe breathing problems occur, the sick person may require admission to hospital for treatment of these.


A vaccination against pertussis is available for children and adults, but not newborn infants. Children are routinely vaccinated against pertussis in the first year of life, with a booster at preschool age, so keeping to the recommended vaccination schedule is important. Family members and carers of newborns should have booster vaccinations against pertussis. Pregnant women should ensure their vaccination is up to date during the third trimester. It is important for a person infected with pertussis to avoid social contact (work, school, public transport, etc.) to avoid infecting other people.

Other names for pertussis

  • Whooping cough

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