Germ Profile

Also Known As:  Whooping cough, pertussis
Germ Type:  Bacteria
Season:  Summer, fall

Pertussis is a highly contagious illness that causes spells of uncontrollable coughing. Often these coughing spells end with a deep “whooping” sound as the person tries to catch their breath. Pertussis is a serious illness that can be fatal in infants. There are effective pertussis vaccines.

Unfortunately, outbreaks of this preventable disease are on the rise, due in part to the fact that many children are not vaccinated or are not fully vaccinated.


Outbreaks are most common in late summer and early fall. Scientists have also noted that the bacteria tend to run in a 3-year to 5-year cycles within a particular area.


Signs and Symptoms

When symptoms first start, pertussis tends to look a lot like a common cold, causing a runny nose and perhaps a slight fever and mild cough. The severe coughing spells begin a week or so later. In children, a coughing spell usually ends with the characteristic "whoop" noise, the sound of the child trying to catch his or her breath. Babies under 6 months may not produce this “whooping” even though they may cough so hard they vomit or lose consciousness.

Infection Period


How It's Spread

Pertussis is highly contagious. The bacteria spread person-to-person through coughs, sneezes, laughs – anything that produces a spray that can be breathed in by someone else. Experts estimate that if one person has pertussis, anyone in the household who isn’t immunized against the illness has an 80% chance of getting it, too.

Diagnosis and Treatment

Providers usually diagnose pertussis by taking a medical history and doing a physical exam. The provider may also choose to verify the diagnosis by testing a sample of mucus.

Treatment may include antibiotics, and severe illness might require monitoring and treatment in a hospital. (Note that infants 6 months and younger with pertussis will need hospital treatment.)

What can I do today?

1) Practice prevention and stop the spread:

  • Make sure everyone in your family is immunized with the pertussis vaccine. Pertussis is a preventable disease.
  • During a pertussis outbreak in your area, keep your unimmunized child (age 7 or younger) home from school or daycare and out of social gatherings. Your unimmunized child can rejoin these activities two weeks after the last reported case.
  • Wash your hands often and well, and have children do the same.
  • Disinfect tables, toys, counters, and other surfaces regularly.
  • Cover your sneezes and coughs.
  • Use a tissue once, then throw it away and wash your hands.

2) Call your child’s doctor if you notice:

  • Severe coughing spells (may end in a whooping sound, gasping for air, loss of consciousness, vomiting).
  • Any other breathing problems (such as periods of not breathing, very fast or very slow breathing, noisy breathing).
  • Signs of low oxygen (bluish or purple skin or lips).
  • Fever that lasts longer than 3 days —or fever higher than 100.2°F in an infant 3 months or younger.
  • Fussiness, poor eating, sleepiness or low energy in a baby.
  • Signs of dehydration (dry mouth and eyes, little urine, low energy).
  • Any other severe symptoms or symptoms that last longer than 7 days.

Disclaimer: The contents of this website are not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment.