What is pertussis?

Pertussis is also known as whooping cough. It is a contagious bacterial infection of the lungs. Children are at higher risk of getting pertussis but, thanks to vaccinations, it is now relatively uncommon in children. These days most cases are adults whose immunity has dropped, and the symptoms are less serious.

Symptoms of pertussis

The symptoms of pertussis differ between adults and children. It starts off like a cold, sneezing, runny or blocked nose, sore throat, cough and higher temperature. After a week or two the symptoms will become more severe. It can lead to severe coughing, bringing up phlegm and making you feel tired.

Children will often be sick after coughing, and another distinctive symptom (more common in adults) is a whooping sound between breaths. Pertussis is more serious in children than adults - children may start gagging or stop breathing after bouts of coughing. They may even turn blue in the face, but often this looks more serious than it is and they will begin breathing as normal after a couple of minutes. Rarely they may experience complications due to the symptoms including pneumonia, weight loss, low blood pressure, brain damage or kidney failure.

Treatment of pertussis

Pertussis can usually be treated with antibiotics if it is diagnosed early enough to stop the infection spreading, but if it is only caught in the later stages, antibiotics will not help against the symptoms.

Thankfully the illness is now much less common in children due to vaccines - but they can still get it, in which case they will normally be treated in isolation in hospital and be treated with antibiotics and medication to reduce swelling of the airways.


Vaccines are important to stop pertussis; the 5 in 1 vaccine given to children in the UK helps to build immunity against whooping cough, diphtheria, polio, haemophilus influenzae type b and tetanus. It is important that if you notice the symptoms either in yourself or your child, get it checked out. Even though symptoms are relatively mild in adults, they can be contagious for younger people.

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