Whooping Cough (Pertussis) Symptoms & Causes

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What causes whooping cough?

Whooping cough is caused by a bacteria called Bordetella pertussis. It is spread among children by exposure to infected persons through droplets in the air. Once the bacteria is in the child's airways, swelling of the airways and mucus production begins.

What are the symptoms of whooping cough?

The disease usually takes one to three weeks to fully set in, and your child will usually pass through three stages. While each child may experience symptoms of whooping cough differently, some of the most common symptoms of each stage include:

catarrhal stage (often lasts one to two weeks):

acute phase (may last for several weeks):

  • cough gets worse and comes in severe fits
  • cough is dry and harsh
  • cough ends with a whoop sound on inspiration (breathing in)
  • your child may vomit with the coughing and appear to be strangling on the vomit
  • cough can be started by many factors, including feeding, crying, or playing

recovery phase (usually begins around the fourth week):

  • vomiting and the whooping cough cease first
  • cough usually decreases around the sixth week, but may continue on occasion for the next one to two months

Whooping cough can last up to several weeks and can lead to pneumonia.

Can whooping cough be prevented?

This disease can be mostly prevented with the pertussis vaccine. This is usually part of the DTaP vaccine (which stands for diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis). This vaccine is usually given to children at 2, 4, 6, and 15 to 18 months of age, with a booster at 4 to 6 years of age. Unfortunately, some cases of the disease still occur, especially in infants younger than 6 months.

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