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Pertussis - the disease

  Table of contents for pertussis

What is pertussis?

Pertussis, or whooping cough, is a disease of the respiratory tract caused by bacteria that live in the mouth, nose, and throat. Many children who contract pertussis have coughing spells that last four to eight weeks. The disease is most dangerous in infants. In 2000, an estimated 39 million cases and 297 000 deaths occurred worldwide, due to pertussis.

How is pertussis spread?

Pertussis spreads very easily from child to child in droplets produced by coughing or sneezing. Children exposed to the germs become infected. In many countries the disease occurs in regular epidemic cycles of three to five years.

What are the signs and symptoms of pertussis?

The incubation period is five to 10 days. At first, the infected child appears to have a common cold with runny nose, watery eyes, sneezing, fever, and a mild cough. The cough gradually worsens, and involves many bursts of rapid coughing. At the end of these bursts the child takes in air with a high-pitched whoop. The child may turn blue because he or she does not get enough oxygen during a long burst of coughing. Vomiting and exhaustion often follow the coughing attacks, which are particularly frequent at night.

During recovery coughing gradually becomes less intense. Children usually do not have a high fever during any stage of the illness.

What are the complications of pertussis?

Complications are most likely in young infants. The most common and deadly complication is bacterial pneumonia.

Children may also experience complications such as convulsions and seizures due to fever or reduction in oxygen supply to the brain. This is caused either by coughing attacks or by toxins released by the pertussis bacteria. They may also experience loss of appetite, inflammation of the middle ear, and dehydration.

What is the treatment for pertussis?

Treatment with an antibiotic, usually erythromycin, may make the illness less severe. Because the medication kills bacteria in the nose and throat, the use of antibiotics also reduces the ability of infected people to spread pertussis to others.

Children infected with pertussis should get plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration.

How is pertussis prevented?

Prevention involves immunization with pertussis vaccine, which is usually given in combination with diphtheria and tetanus vaccines (DTP). More recently, some countries have been using a combination vaccine that includes vaccines for diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, vitamin A (HepB), and sometimes Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib).

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