Whooping cough, also called pertussis, is a highly contagious bacterial infection of the respiratory system that causes uncontrollable coughing. Whooping cough is caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis (or B. pertussis). The name comes from the noise made when taking a breath after coughing. Individuals may have choking spells or may cough so hard that they vomit.
The bacteria are spread from person to person through tiny drops of fluid from an infected person's nose or mouth. These germs may become airborne when the person sneezes, coughs, or laughs. Other people then can become infected by inhaling the drops or getting the drops on their hands and then touching their mouths or noses. Infected people are most contagious during the earliest stages of the illness and up to about two weeks after the cough begins. Antibiotics shorten the period of contagiousness to about five days following the start of antibiotic treatment.
Anyone can get whooping cough, but it has historically been more common in infants (younger than six months of age) and children ages 11-18 whose immune systems are not properly functioning or developed. Whooping cough is especially dangerous in infants. The coughing spells can be so bad that it is hard for the infant to eat, drink, or breathe.
Before there was a vaccine, whooping cough was one of the most common childhood diseases and a major cause of childhood deaths in the United States, killing 5,000-10,000 each year. There are fewer cases today because there are both pertussis-only vaccines and combination vaccines for tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis. If an individual is diagnosed with whooping cough, treatment with antibiotics may help if given early.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recently recommended that kids who are 11-18 years old get a booster shot that includes a pertussis vaccine, preferably when they are 11-12 years old.
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