Pertussis also known as whooping cough a highly contagious and serious bacterial infection of the lung marked by violent coughing that is difficult to stop and is often followed by a sharp intake of breath with a “whoop” sound. Before the development of the vaccine, pertussis was a childhood disease and was known to be harmful to the point of fatality in babies.

In India, pertussis cases have fluctuated over the years while showing steady reduction in the recent years with around 4300 cases in the year 2022.

The commonly known vaccine in India is the DTP (diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis) vaccine that aids in preventing these serious infections in children and adults.

What are the symptoms of pertussis?

Generally the first symptoms are similar to that of common cold as follows:

  • Runny nose
  • Mild fever ((below 102 F)
  • Light coughing
  • Sneezing

Sometimes early diarrhoea may also occur.

The symptoms worsen after a week or 2. These symptoms may be as follows:

  • Worsening of cough – Coughing spells ending with a whooping sound as person tries to breath in air. Not all people develop this symptom. Some of them may just exhibit persistent hacking cough.
  • Coughing may result in vomiting, result in a red or blue face and cause extreme tiredness in may cases.

What are the causes of pertussis?

Pertussis is caused by a bacteria known as Bordetella pertussis. These bacteria are transmitted when a person coughs or sneezes via the droplets discharged into the air and breathed into the lungs of a nearby person.

Once the bacteria enter the lungs via the airways, they attach to tiny hairs in the lung causing swelling and inflammation and the typical symptoms of pertussis.

What are the risk factors?

Infants under 12 months of age who have not been vaccinated for pertussis or have not received complete vaccination as per recommendation are at the highest risk of severe complications and even death.

How is pertussis diagnosed?

Pertussis can be difficult to diagnose early on due to commonality of symptoms with a cold, flu, or even bronchitis. The doctor may diagnose it simply by listening to the cough and asking the symptoms. In most cases, the following tests are recommended to confirm diagnosis.

  • Nose or throat culture – A swab from the area where nose and throat meet (nasopharynx) is taken and send for testing for pertussis bacteria
  • Blood test – A non-specific test indicating presence of an infection, but not specifically pertussis is seen in the blood test. The indicator is the high number of white blood cells if seen in the blood test.
  • Chest X-ray – The doctor checks for any inflammation or fluid in the lungs, that could be a sign of pneumonia.

What are the treatment options for pertussis?

Infants with whooping cough are generally hospitalized owing to the serious nature of the disease. In case of vomiting, if the child cannot keep down solids or liquids, intravenous fluids may be necessary. The infant may also be isolated to prevent spread of disease. Older children and adults may not require hospitalization.

The treatment of pertussis is by antibiotics (drugs that kill or halt the growth of bacteria). Family members or those in close contact may be given preventive medication.

What are some of the home remedies in pertussis?

Normal cough suppressants usually do not work for whooping cough. Coughing spells sometime prevent a person from ingesting fluid which leaves them dehydrated. Few things can be done to help a person recover faster and for them to feel better:

  • Getting lots of rest to help recover inner strength.
  • Eating smaller meals helps in preventing vomiting that may be caused by excessive coughing.
  • Avoiding dust, smoke, and other irritants may help in preventing cough.
  • Drinking fluids such as water or juice to prevent dehydration.

How can pertussis be prevented?

Best way to prevent pertussis is with a vaccine which is often given in combination with diphtheria and tetanus (DPT). Generally five vaccines are given to children over course of time. These are at age 2 months, 4 months, 6 months, 15 to 18 months and 4 to 6 years. Booster shots may be given to some adults prone to infections, pregnant females and adolescents.


  1. Communicable Diseases. India – Pertussis reported cases. January 2024.
  2. Wooping cough. January 2024. WebMD.
  3. Whooping cough. January 2024. Mayo Clinic.
  4. Pertussis (Whooping Cough). January 2024. IAP Advisory Committee on Vaccines & Immunization Practices.

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