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Pertussis (Whooping Cough)

Pertussis, whooping cough, is a serious and highly contagious infection of the lungs and throat caused by Bordetella pertussis bacteria. Young children who have not been immunized get sicker than older children and adults.

On average, one to three deaths occur due to pertussis in Canada. Saskatchewan had three deaths from pertussis between 2010 and 2015.

People can get pertussis at any age. People can get pertussis many times during their life, as they do not develop permanent immunity. 

Disease may occur in those who have been vaccinated but symptoms are typically milder.

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1. Complications and Symptoms of Pertussis

Serious complications of pertussis happen most often in infants and may include:

  • Apnea (breathing stops)
  • Pneumonia
  • Convulsions or seizures
  • Encephalopathy (brain damage) that may be permanent.

Pertussis starts like a common cold with symptoms such as:

  • Sneezing
  • Runny nose
  • Mild fever
  • A mild cough

During the next week or two, the cough gets worse, leading to severe coughing spells that often end with a whooping sound before the next breath, especially in young children.

Teenagers and adults may not make the whooping sound.

The cough can last one to two months and occurs more often at night. The cough can make a person gag or spit out mucus and make it hard to take a breath preventing enough oxygen from getting to the brain.

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2. How Pertussis is Spread

Early diagnosis and treatment is important to stop the spread of the pertussis bacteria.

Pertussis is spread in a number of ways:

  • A person with pertussis who does not get treatment can spread the germ to others for up to three weeks after the cough starts.
  • Pertussis spreads easily when an infected person coughs, sneezes or has close contact with others.
  • Sharing food, drinks or cigarettes, or kissing someone who carries the bacteria can also put you at risk.
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3. Treatment for Pertussis

Early treatment of pertussis with antibiotics can:

  • Help to reduce the spread of infection; and
  • The duration of illness.

If you are at high risk of serious illness and are in close contact with someone with pertussis, you will be given an antibiotic to prevent the disease.

This includes:

  • Infants younger than one year old; and
  • Pregnant women in their last three months of pregnancy as well as their household and daycare contacts.

People who have pertussis or who may have been exposed to pertussis shouldn't have any contact with babies or young children until they have been properly tested and/or treated for pertussis.

If you have been in contact with a person who has pertussis, call your doctor, nurse practitioner, or local public health office for more information.

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4. Prevention of Pertussis

Pertussis containing vaccines are part of the routine childhood immunization program (starting at 2 months of age with the final dose given in Grade 8).  

It is important to protect babies from pertussis before they can be immunized and for their first year of life. Protection can begin before they are born through the immunization of pregnant women in their third trimester.

All other adults can receive one dose of pertussis vaccine after the age of 18. Additional pertussis vaccines may be recommended for previously vaccinated women who are now pregnant if a local pertussis outbreak is declared.

Pertussis containing vaccines include:

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