Pertussis in Children

What is pertussis?

Pertussis is a serious bacterial infection of the lining of the breathing passages, particularly in the windpipe area. Pertussis, also called whooping cough, is caused by Bordetella pertussis bacteria and is extremely contagious. Anyone can get whooping cough, but it is more common in infants and children. It's especially dangerous in infants. The coughing spells can be so bad that it is hard for infants to eat, drink or breathe.


Symptoms of pertussis may begin within three to 12 days of exposure and last as long as two weeks. Initial symptoms include nasal congestion, runny nose, sneezing, mild fever and watery eyes. Following a two-week course of illness, pertussis begins as a dry, hacking cough that progresses to prolonged coughing spasms. During these spasms, the tongue may protrude, the eyes may bulge and the face may become discolored. Mucus may be produced, and vomiting may occur. Coughing spasms are often followed by noisy, whooping inhalations. Infants younger than three months and adults may not experience this characteristic sound when inhaling.


A history and physical examination leads to a diagnosis, which may be confirmed by detecting the bacteria in cultures or smears of secretions from the nose and upper throat.


Treatment is based on antibiotic therapy, which may also be prescribed to other members of an infected person's household to prevent the spread of infection. The infected person should be isolated for five days after antibiotic therapy has been started, and exposure to infants should be strictly avoided. Infants younger than three months who have pertussis are hospitalized; infants between three and six months may also need to be hospitalized.

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