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What is pertussis?

Pertussis, or whooping cough, is an infection of the nose, throat, and lungs. Your air passages get plugged with thick mucus, which causes coughing spells. Pertussis is usually less serious in adults and most serious in babies and young children. Pertussis is caused by bacteria. It is easily spread in the air when someone with pertussis coughs or sneezes.

What are the signs and symptoms of pertussis?

It may take 3 to 21 days to get pertussis after you come in contact with the bacteria. This time is called the incubation period. Pertussis begins like a cold. After you cough and you take a breath, you may make a whooping noise. You may also cough up thick mucus after a coughing spell. You may cough for several weeks or months after you begin to feel better. You may also have the following signs and symptoms:

  • Red or watery eyes
  • Sneezing and a runny, stuffy nose
  • A cough that may worsen after 7 to 14 days
  • Fever or sweating
  • No interest in eating or drinking
  • Fatigue, often after a coughing spell
  • Vomiting because of the coughing

How is pertussis diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will do a physical exam and listen to your lungs. He will ask about your symptoms and how long you have felt sick. He may ask if you have other health conditions. Tell your healthcare provider if you have been around anyone who has pertussis. He may order the following tests to find the cause of your symptoms:

  • Blood tests will help your healthcare provider find out if you have an infection.
  • A nasal swab is a test that may help your healthcare provider learn which type of germ is causing your illness. It is done by placing a cotton swab into your nose to collect a sample of nasal mucus.
  • A chest x-ray may be done to look for signs of infection, such as pneumonia.

How is pertussis treated?

  • NSAIDs , such as ibuprofen, help decrease swelling, pain, and fever. This medicine is available with or without a doctor's order. NSAIDs can cause stomach bleeding or kidney problems in certain people. If you take blood thinner medicine, always ask your healthcare provider if NSAIDs are safe for you. Always read the medicine label and follow directions.
  • Acetaminophen decreases pain and fever. It is available without a doctor's order. Ask how much to take and how often to take it. Follow directions. Acetaminophen can cause liver damage if not taken correctly.
  • Antibiotics help treat or prevent a bacterial infection.

How can I manage my symptoms?

  • Drink liquids as directed. Ask how much liquid to drink each day and which liquids are best for you. You may need to drink small amounts of liquid every hour when awake. This will help prevent dehydration. Good liquids to drink are water, fruit juices, or sports drinks. Limit caffeine.
  • Eat a variety of healthy foods. Healthy foods include fruits, vegetables, whole-grain breads, low-fat dairy products, beans, lean meats, and fish. If you are not hungry, eat smaller amounts more often. Healthy foods may give you energy and help you feel better.
  • Rest as much as possible until you begin to feel better.
  • Use a cool mist humidifier to increase air moisture in your home. This may make it easier for you to breathe and help decrease your cough.
  • Do not smoke or be around anyone who smokes. Your breathing and coughing may get worse if you are near smoke. Ask your healthcare provider for information if you currently smoke and need help quitting.

How can I help prevent pertussis?

  • Tdap vaccine is given to help prevent tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (whooping cough). The vaccine is usually given to children 11 to 12 years of age who were vaccinated against these diseases. Children and adults who were not fully vaccinated or whose vaccination is not known may need at least 1 Tdap dose. A Td (tetanus and diphtheria) booster shot is given every 10 years after the final Tdap dose. Pregnant women are given 1 dose of Tdap during each pregnancy, usually at 27 to 36 weeks.
  • Prevent the spread of pertussis. If you have had contact with someone who has pertussis, stay away from others. If you have signs or symptoms of pertussis, stay away from others. Do not return to work until your healthcare provider says it is okay. Ask your healthcare provider if you or family members need to receive antibiotic medicine or a booster shot.

Call 911 for the following:

  • You have trouble breathing.

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • You have a fever.
  • Your cough is getting worse.
  • You are vomiting and cannot keep anything down.
  • You are not sleeping or resting because of the cough.
  • You have a headache, dizziness, or confusion.
  • You have dry mouth or increased thirst.
  • You are urinating little or not at all.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© 2015 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.