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Pertussis (Whooping Cough)

Symptoms, prevention and vaccine for pertussis (whooping cough)

What is pertussis?

Pertussis or whooping cough is a contagious disease of the respiratory tract (airways and lungs). It is caused by bacteria found in the mouth, nose and throat of an infected person. Pertussis can be a serious, even life-threatening illness in infants younger than 12 months old. Pertussis is spread through direct contact with nose and throat mucus and droplets. After exposure, illness usually begins between one to three weeks later.

Prescription antibiotics can help someone with pertussis. If your child is diagnosed with pertussis, they will need to remain home from school for five days so that the antibiotics can work.


Pertussis starts with cold-like symptoms. In 1-2 weeks, a severe cough develops and can last weeks to months. During coughing attacks, children may gag, gasp or strain to breath, sometimes making a high-pitched whooping sound. This may be followed by vomiting or exhaustion. Usually, there is no fever or only a mild fever.


  • A vaccine is the most effective way to prevent the spread of this illness. It is still possible to get sick with pertussis if you have had all the necessary vaccines, but the risk of infection is less.
  • Review your child’s immunization record to see if they are current on all vaccinations.
  • Wash hands often with soap and water.
  • Cover coughs and sneezes with tissue or in elbow.

Washington County Public Health recommendations

  • If your child has symptoms of pertussis, keep them at home and consult with their health care provider.
  • If your child is diagnosed with pertussis, please report this to the regional pertussis program at 503-988-8848.
  • Review and update (if necessary) your child’s immunization record. Current recommendations for pertussis vaccination are as follows:
    • Five-dose series of DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus and acellular pertussis) through age six. These doses are typically given at age 2 months, 4 months, 6 months, 15-18 months, and 4-6 years.
    • All adolescents ages 11-12 years should receive one dose of Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria and acellular pertussis) vaccine.
    • Those ages 11–64 years old who have not yet received the Tdap vaccine should get one.
    • Children ages 7-10 who are not fully vaccinated against pertussis should receive a dose of Tdap vaccine.
    • Adults over age 65 and pregnant women should consult with their health care provider about getting the Tdap vaccine.
    • Anyone who has not gotten the vaccine series on time should consult with their health care provider on how to catch up.

For more information

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has an excellent website with additional information. If you have further questions, please call Washington County Public Health at 503-846-3594.

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