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Pertussis (Whooping Cough)

The following information focuses on adults. For information about babies and children, please go to www.cdc.gov/pertussis.

Pertussis, also known as whooping cough, is a highly contagious and potentially very serious lung illness caused by bacteria. It spreads easily through the air from person to person when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Infected individuals are most contagious for up to two weeks after the cough begins.

The illness can affect people of all ages, but can be very serious, even deadly, for babies less than a year old. Getting vaccinated is best way to protect yourself and others (e.g. babies, persons with compromised immune systems) against pertussis or reduce its severity if you become infected.


What are the symptoms of pertussis?
Complications in adults
Treatment
Prevention, including whether you need another vaccine
How to get the vaccine
Are you at risk right now of getting pertussis?
Actions to take if you're currently at risk
Resources

What are the symptoms of pertussis?

Early illness

Symptoms usually appear 7 to 10 days after exposure. The disease typically starts with cold-like symptoms that last from 1 to 2 weeks and may include:

  • Runny nose
  • Low-grade fever (generally minimal throughout the course of the disease)
  • Mild, occasional cough
Because pertussis in its early stages seems much like the common cold, it is often not suspected or diagnosed until more severe symptoms appear.

Later illness

After 1 to 2 weeks and as the disease progresses, the more “traditional” symptoms of pertussis may appear and include:

  • Fits of many, rapid coughs, which can be violent and force air from the lungs, causing the person to inhale with a high-pitched “whooping” sound, hence the old name “whooping cough.”
  • Vomiting (throwing up) during or after coughing fits
  • Exhaustion (very tired) after coughing fits, but usually appearing fairly well in between.
Coughing episodes generally become more frequent and worse as the illness continues and may occur more often at night. Coughing episodes may occur for up to 10 weeks or more.

People who have been vaccinated, but still get pertussis, usually experience shorter duration of the cough and less frequent coughing fits.

Complications in adults

Complications are usually less frequent and serious in vaccinated individuals and include passing out or fracturing ribs during coughing fits. Sometimes coughing fits return with subsequent respiratory infections for several months after having pertussis.

Treatment

Pertussis is treated with antibiotics, and antibiotics may shorten the amount of time someone is contagious.

Prevention

Getting vaccinated is best way to protect yourself and others (e.g. babies) against pertussis or reduce its severity if you become infected.
  • Vaccine protection for pertussis (whooping cough), tetanus, and diphtheria fades with time, so all adults 19 and older who have not previously received a Tdap vaccine need a booster shot. Experts recommend adults receive a tetanus and diphtheria booster (called Td) every 10 years. The easiest thing for adults to do is to get Tdap instead of their next regular Td booster. The dose of Tdap can be given earlier than the 10-year mark.
  • For Tdap vaccine recommendations during pregnancy, go to www.cdc.gov/pertussis/pregnant/index.html.

Check your immunization records, and consider getting the Tdap vaccine if you need one. UT students can call the UHS Allergy/Immunization Clinic at (512) 475-8301 to schedule an appointment. Faculty/staff can contact their primary care provider or go to a local pharmacy that provides vaccines and is in network with their insurance.

Are you at risk right now of getting pertussis?

You may be at risk of exposure to pertussis and have the potential to become sick if any of the following scenarios are true.
  • You were not vaccinated for pertussis as a child, or
  • You haven't had a pertussis booster vaccine (Tdap, Adacel, Boostrix) at or after age 11,

  • AND

  • Over the past 7-10 days you were within 3 feet of a coughing person with pertussis, or you encountered the bacteria that causes pertussis, by breathing droplets from a cough or touching a surface where the bacteria could have landed (e.g. a desk or door handle) and then touching your mouth or nose.

Actions to take if you're currently at risk

For UT students:

If you have symptoms of pertussis, seek medical care. Students should call the UHS Appointments Line at (512) 471-4955 (M – F 8am – 5pm) or the UHS 24-Hour Nurse Advice Line at (512) 475-6877 (NURS) BEFORE COMING TO UHS. We will arrange to care for you while reducing the risk of exposing other patients.

If you don't feel sick and have been vaccinated for pertussis (received a Tdap, Adacel or Boostrix vaccine at or since age 11), your risk of infection is low. No action is needed. However, if you start to experience symptoms, seek medical care as outlined above.

If you don't feel sick and are not sure if you have been vaccinated against pertussis, review your immunization records first. If you have documentation of receiving a pertussis booster vaccine (Tdap, Adacel or Boostrix) at or since age 11, no action is needed. If you're still uncertain, call the UHS Allergy/Immunization Clinic at (512) 475-8301 to schedule an appointment to get the Tdap vaccine.

If you don't feel sick but would like to find out whether you should get a preventative treatment (based on current recommendations from the CDC) that could reduce your chance of getting pertussis, call the UHS 24-Hr Nurse Advice Line at (512) 475-6877 (NURS).

For faculty and staff:

If you have pertussis symptoms or have questions about your vaccine status, call your primary care provider. The CDC recommends one Tdap booster as an adult. If you have already received a Tdap vaccine, your pertussis vaccination status is current. The UT Select medical insurance plan for staff and faculty provides 100% coverage with zero co-pay or deductible for recommended vaccines. Many local pharmacies are in-network with UT Select and offer vaccine services on a walk-in basis. For information about UT Select preventative health services, visit the UT Select Living Well site.

Resources

U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention -- cdc.gov/pertussis


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