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Whooping Cough/Pertussis

Pertussis virus

Pertussis, or whooping cough, is a very contagious (easy to catch) disease of the respiratory tract. It is caused by a bacterium (germ) found in the mouth, nose and throat of a person who is infected.

Facts & figures

Information for health professionals

The following information has been derived from the HealthLink BC file produced by the Ministry of Health.

Pertussis, or whooping cough, is a very contagious (easy to catch) disease of the respiratory tract. It is caused by a bacterium (germ) found in the mouth, nose and throat of a person who is infected.


Pertussis starts like a common cold, with sneezing, runny nose, low-grade fever and a mild cough. But over the next week or 2 the cough gets worse and worse, leading to really bad coughing spells that often end with a whoop (which is where the name whooping cough came from). The coughing may be so bad that it makes a child gag or throw up. Sometimes a thick, clear mucous is spit out. This cough can last up to a month or 2, and happens more at night.

Babies less than 6 months old, vaccinated children, and teenagers and adults often do not have the whoop-sounding cough, so anyone who has a cough that lasts more than a week without getting better should see a doctor to make sure the cough is not pertussis.

The germ is spread when a person with pertussis coughs or sneezes the germ into the air, where other people can breathe it in.

A person who is infected can give it to others in the early stages of illness, before the really bad coughing spells start. Older children and adults can give pertussis to young babies without knowing it. That is why older children and adults who have a cough for more than a week should get tested by their doctor to make sure they cannot give it to babies in the household. The test is done by a swab collected through the nose and sent to the lab for pertussis testing.

A person who has pertussis and does not get it treated can spread the germs to others for up to 3 weeks after the coughing spells start.

Sometimes, but not often, pertussis can cause:

  • pneumonia: (1 out of 5 cases)
  • convulsions or seizures: (1 out of 30 cases)
  • encephalopathy (brain damage): (1 out of 100 cases)
  • about 1 infant out of every 170 who gets pertussis will die from it. Most deaths (4 out of 5) are babies under a year old

A person with pertussis is usually given an antibiotic, called erythromycin (uh REE throw MY sin). Also, people who may have been in close contact with someone who has pertussis are also given this medicine. This includes people living in the same house, and other household and day care contacts. The treatment usually takes 10 days.

If you have been in contact with a person who has pertussis, you should call your family doctor or local health unit for more information.

People who have, or who may have, pertussis should not go near pregnant women, small children, and babies until they have been properly treated.

The best way to protect your children against pertussis is to get them immunized. The pertussis vaccine is part of the normal childhood vaccine which is given at 2 months, 4 months, 6 months, and 18 months old, and again at age 4 to 6 years (before Kindergarten). A pertussis vaccine is also given to teens at 14 to 16 years of age (Grade 9) in British Columbia.

If you are not sure if your child has been given their "shots" for pertussis and other diseases, check your child's Health Passport, or ask your family doctor or local health unit.

Is there a vaccine available?

The vaccine being used at 2, 4, and 6 months is Diphtheria/Tetanus/acellular Pertussis/hepatitis B/polio/Hib and protects against 6 diseases. At 18 months it is Diphtheria/Tetanus/acellular Pertussis/Polio/Hib. The vaccine given as a booster when a child starts school (age 4 to 6 years) is Diphtheria/Tetanus/acellular Pertussis/Polio. The vaccine given to teens (age 14 to 16 years) in Grade 9 is diphtheria/Tetanus/acellular Pertussis.

Possible vaccine reactions

Some children will have a slight fever and be cranky, drowsy or not want to eat in the day or two after the shot. If your child develops a fever, you can give them a medication containing acetaminophen. If your child is at increased risk for febrile seizures following immunization, you can give them acetaminophen, prior to, or at the time of the immunization, and then 4 to 5 times daily, at intervals of 4 to 6 hours, not to exceed 5 doses in 24 hours. Discuss this with the public health nurse, family doctor or pharmacist. Children may also develop some soreness, swelling or redness in the area where the shot was given. A small painless lump may develop where the shot was given but usually disappears within two months.

Fever, crankiness, drowsiness, and soreness may last for one to two days and can usually be helped by putting cool cloths on the needle site, giving extra fluids if the child has a fever and giving the child a lukewarm bath or sponge bath.

With any vaccine or drug there is a possibility of a shock-like allergic reaction (anaphylaxis). This can be hives, wheezy breathing, or swelling of some part of the body. If this happens, particularly swelling around the throat, immediately get to your family doctor or hospital emergency.

It is suggested that persons stay in the clinic for at least 15 minutes after receiving any type of immunization.

Report serious reactions to your local public health nurse or family doctor.

The benefits of protection against these four diseases significantly outweigh any risk from the vaccine.

Note: Acetaminophen is recommended if there is fever or pain following immunization.

Acetylsalicylic acid (ASA or aspirin) must NOT be given to children.

Note: If your child is receiving cortisone or other drugs which affect their immunity, they can still get the immunization; however, these drugs can interfere with the body's ability to produce a good level of protection.

Warning: If your child has the following conditions, consult with a public health nurse or their family doctor before your child receives the vaccine:

  • History of a shock-like allergic (anaphylactic) reaction to a previous dose of DPT, DTaP, Polio, Hib or Hepatitis B - containing vaccine or to any INFANRIX hexa vaccine component, or to latex
  • History of Guillain-Barré syndrome (GBS) within 8 weeks of receipt of a "tetanus-containing vaccine”

SOURCE: Whooping Cough/Pertussis ( )
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