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Online Continuing Education Course

Course Description

Pertussis CEU for nursing and EMS personnel. 1.5 hour course covers the public health issues associated with the disease; prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and complications.

Course Price: $15.00

Contact Hours: 1.5

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LEARNING OUTCOME AND OBJECTIVES:  Upon completion of this course, you will understand the significance in the rise of pertussis to epidemic levels and be prepared to provide appropriate preventive, assessment, diagnostic, and treatment services/methods for patients suffering from the disease. Specific learning objectives include:

  • Discuss the etiology, pathogenesis, presentation, and progression of pertussis.
  • Identify public health issues associated with current pertussis outbreaks and epidemics.
  • State evidence-based measures to take for prevention of pertussis.
  • Relate assessment data and methods used to diagnose pertussis.
  • Discuss current, evidence-based treatment options available to patients with pertussis.
  • Describe direct complications that can result from pertussis.


Pertussis, commonly known as whooping cough, is a very contagious bacterial disease spread from person to person primarily through large droplets released into the air by coughing and sneezing. These droplets contain the pertussis-causing bacteria, which then enter the mouth or nose of another person. Pertussis is also known to be transmitted by handling tissues and other materials containing the droplets, which are then transmitted to the mouth or nose.

Pertussis results in severe coughing attacks, and the disease can last for months. It is a life-threatening disease for infants, who are too young to receive vaccinations against its risk. After a period of great decline, pertussis is currently on the rise again and has reached epidemic proportions in areas of the United States and other developed countries.


Grace is an 8-month-old infant, the youngest of three children. Developmentally, she has had a normal, healthy infancy, and thus far, she has received all of the immunizations recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Maria, her mother, has had a minor “cold” for the past week, and when Grace wakes one morning with sniffles and a runny nose, she assumes that Grace has caught the same cold. Her siblings, however, have no symptoms.

After a week with a low-grade fever and a runny nose, Grace develops a mild, occasional cough, which increases over the next week. Maria notices that every now and then after coughing, Grace seems to stop breathing. Cautious but not overly concerned, Maria takes her daughter to the doctor expecting to be told that Grace has a common respiratory ailment. Maria never anticipates that both she and her daughter will be diagnosed with pertussis.


The cause of pertussis, or whooping cough, is a bacteria known as Bordetella pertussis (B. pertussis), a Gram-negative, aerobic coccobacillus. This bacteria produces a number of virulence factors, including pertussis toxin, adenylate cyclase toxin, filamentous hemagglutinin, and hemolysin. Humans are this bacterium’s only known reservoir.

Pertussis is a toxin-mediated respiratory disease. The disease-causing bacteria attach themselves to cilia in the upper respiratory system and then release toxins that paralyze the cilia and cause inflammation. This paralysis and inflammation interfere with the clearing of pulmonary secretions. In the past it was thought that this bacterium does not invade tissues, but studies have shown that it is also present in alveolar macrophages.

The pathogenesis of pertussis involves two stages:

  1. Colonization stage. The disease in this stage is characterized by fever, malaise, and coughing, which increases in intensity over approximately a 10-day period. During this period, the organism can be recovered in large numbers from pharyngeal cultures, and the severity and duration of the disease can be reduced by antimicrobial treatment.
  2. Toxemic stage. Follows the relatively vague symptoms of the colonization stage. It begins slowly with prolonged and paroxysmal coughing that often ends in a characteristic inspiratory gasp that sounds like a “whoop.” During this stage, the bacterium can rarely be recovered from the pharynx, and antimicrobial agents have no effect on the progress of the disease.


Once a person has been exposed to pertussis bacteria, symptoms may develop within 7 to 10 days, but the disease can incubate for up to 6 weeks. The course of the disease follows three clinical stages, the first two of which parallel the organism’s pathogenesis (described above): catarrhal/colonization, paroxysmal/toxemic, and convalescent.

  1. The catarrhal (colonization) stage lasts 1 to 2 weeks and is characterized by cold-like symptoms: a runny nose; low-grade fever; a mild, occasional cough; and for infants, apnea. People are most highly contagious during this stage.
  2. During the paroxysmal (toxemic) stage, which can last from 1 to up to 10 weeks, individuals experience paroxysms of numerous, rapid, and violent coughing in an attempt to expel thick mucus from the respiratory tract. These paroxysms occur most often at night, averaging 15 attacks in 24 hours. During an attack the person may become cyanotic and following the attack may experience fatigue, dyspnea, or posttussive emesis. Following the paroxysm in children, an effort to inspire usually ends with the characteristic “whoop.” Infants younger than 6 months may not be strong enough to have an inspiratory “whoop,” but they do have paroxysms of coughing. (See “Resources” at the end of this course for a link to a recording of “whooping.”) Interestingly, during this stage, the person does not appear to be ill between coughing attacks.
  3. The convalescent stage lasts 2 to 3 weeks or more and presents itself as a gradual lessening of the cough in terms of both frequency and intensity. Paroxysms often accompany subsequent respiratory infections from other causes for many months following the onset of pertussis (CDC, 2013a).

Pertussis most commonly affects children and infants, but adolescents and adults are also susceptible. Called the “cough of 100 days” by the Chinese, the disease can be fatal, particularly for infants under one year of age.

Pertussis presents as a milder disease in adolescents, adults, and children who are partially protected by the vaccine. These persons may present with a mild or persistent cough, without an inspiratory “whoop,” or they may be completely asymptomatic. Even though the disease may be milder in older persons, those who are infected may transmit the disease to other susceptible persons, including unimmunized or incompletely immunized infants. An older person in a household with multiple pertussis cases is often the first to acquire the disease and a source of infection for children in the home.


Pertussis is a public health issue, and cases—both probable and confirmed—must be reported to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) through the National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System (NNDSS). Records of reported pertussis cases have been compiled since 1922.

Prior to the introduction of the pertussis vaccines (DTP) in the 1940s, reported cases of pertussis often exceeded 100,000 cases each year. By 1965, however, reported cases declined to fewer than 10,000. During the 1990s, pertussis cases began to rise, and by 2013 there were over 28,000 cases reported in the United States (CDC, 2014a). From January 1 to June 16, 2014, 9,964 cases of pertussis were reported by the 50 states and Washington, D.C. This was a 24% increase compared with the same period in 2013 (CDC, 2014b).

Infants less than one year old, who are at greatest risk for severe disease and death, continue to have the highest reported rate of pertussis, and school-aged children 7 to 10 years now comprise a large proportion of reported pertussis cases (CDC, 2014a).

Age Incidence/100,000
Source: CDC, 2014a.
<6 months 138.0
6–11 months 39.4
1–6 years 18.8
7–10 years 26.2
11–19 years 17.6
20+ years 2.2
Unknown N/A
Total 7.69
Calculated from 24,135 cases with age reported.

From 2013–2014, many states reported increases in pertussis cases compared to 2012–2013, and epidemics were reported in both California and Washington State.

Possible Causes for the Increased Incidence of Pertussis

While the reasons for the increase in cases of whooping cough are not fully understood, multiple factors are likely involved and may include:

  • Diminished immunity from childhood pertussis vaccines related to new vaccines
  • Decreased vaccination rates
  • Improved diagnostic testing
  • Increased reporting


Protection from pertussis vaccines given to children continues to be excellent during the first few years after vaccination but wears off over time. Outbreaks and epidemics in the United States are consistent with waning immunity seen as this protection diminishes.

It is suspected that this is due to the change in the 1990s from pertussis vaccines that used full-strength doses of the whole bacteria cell to reduced doses of acellular vaccines, which only contain parts of the bacteria. An FDA study using animals exposed to the pertussis bacterium showed that both types of vaccines provide excellent antibody responses, but those that received an acellular pertussis vaccine had the bacteria in their airways for up to six weeks and were able to spread the infection to others who were not vaccinated. In contrast, those that received the whole-cell vaccine had no bacteria present within three weeks (USFDA, 2013).

These findings suggest that even though individuals immunized with acellular pertussis vaccine may be protected from the disease, they might still become infected without becoming sick and are able to spread the infection to others (Parch, 2014).


“Vaccine refusers” are parents who choose not to have their children vaccinated because they believe vaccines are not safe. Among others, two major concerns parents have are that children are being given too many shots too soon and that there is a link between the preservative thimerosal and health problems such as autism. These concerns pose difficult challenges for healthcare professionals, and it is important to educate parents about the facts.

Scientific data show that receiving multiple vaccines has no harmful effect on a healthy child’s immune system, and there is no evidence of negative neuropsychological outcomes.

Thimerosal contains a form of mercury that was used in very small amounts since the 1930s. There is no evidence of harm caused by the very small amounts of thimerosal used in vaccines, but as a precautionary measure it has been removed from most all vaccines since 2001, with no decline in the rates of autism. The cause of autism is unknown, but the current theory is that it is a genetically based disorder that occurs before birth (AAP, 2013).

Vaccine refusal has been considered a significant factor in the rise of pertussis but has been shown to be questionable, in that during a recent outbreak in California, most of the children who contracted pertussis were immunized. It is known, however, that when more parents choose to delay or refuse recommended childhood vaccinations, the overall rate of vaccination drops, the population as a whole becomes less immune to the disease, and more opportunities are created for whooping cough outbreaks (Parch, 2014).


The healthcare community has become more aware of the disease, its symptomatology, and its significance. As a result, there have been advances made in diagnostic testing and reporting. Laboratory diagnosis of pertussis has gone through many changes in the last 20 years, with continuing improvement in early detection. These changes have revealed the importance of pertussis in older persons and their role in disease transmission (Loeffelholz, 2012).

Many changes have also enhanced the completeness of reporting. These changes include the use of electronic laboratory reports, the searching of hospital and laboratory records, the use of administrative datasets (e.g., Medicare and Medicaid), and expanded sources of reporting beyond the physician (Roush, 2014).



A universal vaccine for children has been recommended since the mid-1940s and has made great inroads in the prevention of the disease. Maintaining a high rate of vaccination among infants, children, adolescents, and adults is considered the most effective way to prevent pertussis.

There are two types of pertussis vaccines currently available:

  • Inactivated whole-cell type (wP) vaccine, based on the pertussis organism, is the older of the two options and is used primarily in developing countries. It is the cheapest vaccine option but carries with it higher rates of minor adverse reactions like erythema, edema, fever, and agitation.
  • Acellular version (aP or ap) vaccine is based on components of the pertussis organism. It is newer, more expensive to manufacture, and generates fewer adverse effects; it is the vaccine most commonly used in industrialized nations, including the United States.

To reduce the number of shots that a person receives at one office visit, pertussis vaccines are given in combination with diphtheria (D or d) and tetanus (T) vaccines. The uppercase letters refer to full-strength and lowercase to reduced-strength doses.

In the United States full-strength diptheria, tetanus, and pertussis (DTaP) vaccine is given to children under 7 years of age. Full-strength tetanus and reduced-strength diphtheria and pertussis (Tdap) is given to older children and adults (CDC, 2013b).


The American Academy of Pediatrics (2014) states that children younger than 7 years of age should get five doses of DTaP, one dose at each of the following ages: 2 months, 4 months, 6 months, 15 to 18 months, and 4 to 6 years.

Children 7 to 10 years old who were not fully immunized should receive the Tdap booster shot, which is also recommended for adolescents 11 to 18 years of age and adults 19 to 64. Updated recommendations now state that Tdap should be given to all adults 65 years and older (CDC, 2012).

Because vaccination provides immunity to an unborn child, pregnant women should receive a dose of Tdap between 27 and 36 weeks gestation during each pregnancy, irrespective of their prior history of receiving Tdap, as studies have shown that when the source of pertussis was identified, mothers were responsible for 30% to 40% of infant infections (CDC, 2014c).


Because approximately 80% of cases have been shown to be caused by someone in the home, the CDC (2014d) recommends encouraging persons in close contact with infants to be up to date with their pertussis vaccine.

“Cocooning” involves vaccination of the mother during pregnancy, as recommended, and vaccination of other family members and caregivers. This might include daycare facility workers, nannies, teenage babysitters, and healthcare professionals. Cocooning is important, but it is impossible to make certain that everyone around an infant has been vaccinated. The CDC suggests that cocooning might not be enough to prevent pertussis illness and death in infants, but it does provide them with some indirect protection.


Because of the increased exposure healthcare workers face, they are at greater risk of contracting pertussis. Pertussis outbreaks in the workplace are not only stressful for the individual, but they can be costly and disruptive for the place of employment. To help counterbalance the increased risk for healthcare workers, the CDC recommends that all employees with direct patient contact receive a Tdap booster every 10 years or more often.

Transmission Precautions

Pertussis is spread through airborne droplets expelled during coughing or sneezing. These droplets are known to travel a distance of three feet. Transmission risk increases when a person is confined in close proximity to a symptomatic person for more than an hour.

Patients with suspected or confirmed pertussis should preferably be placed in a private room, and droplet precautions should remain in place until the patient has received five days of effective antimicrobial therapy.

In the healthcare setting, workers should wear a surgical mask when in contact with any coughing patient. They should wash their hands after any patient contact and after contact with inanimate objects within the patient’s room. If a healthcare worker or household contact was not wearing a mask and was within three feet of an infectious pertussis patient, preventive antibiotics are recommended (CDC, 2014e).

Precautions should be taken to prevent cross-contamination between sample collection and in the laboratory by wearing protective gloves, disinfecting surfaces with a low-level disinfectant, and washing hands thoroughly and regularly.

Routine cleaning and disinfecting is recommended to reduce the spread of pertussis. B. pertussis survival rates include:

  • 3 to 6 days on inanimate dry surfaces
  • 5 days on clothing
  • 2 days on paper
  • 6 days on glass


  • Isopropyl alcohol
  • Ethyl alcohol

Halogens: Hypochlorites

  • Household chlorine bleach
  • Clorox
  • Purex

Oxidizing agents

  • Hydrogen peroxide
  • Trifectant
  • Peracetic acid

Phenolic Compounds

  • Pine-Sol
  • Lysol
  • Triclosan
  • Chloroxylenol

Quaternary Ammonium

  • Hi-Tor
  • Parvosol
  • Benzalkonium chloride
  • Roccal

Source: PHAC, 2010.

When using a disinfectant, concentration and contact time for each product will differ. Surfaces should be sprayed until completely wet and should remain wet for the length of time specified for the disinfectant (contact time). The surface should be resprayed if it dries before the recommended contact time.


Schools, work places, and other public settings bring persons into contact with others who may be infected with pertussis. Pertussis is quite contagious among contacts such as household members; persons who are face-to-face within three feet of each other for more than one hour; and persons who have direct contact with respiratory, oral, or nasal secretions.

Unfortunately, pertussis is most contagious before an infected person has any symptoms of the disease, making transmission even more likely. It is imperative that people, including children, be taught to practice healthy habits known to reduce risk of contagion. One of the most effective habits is to wash hands or use a hand sanitizer after:

  • Coughing, sneezing, or blowing the nose
  • Touching another person’s hands
  • Touching frequently touched areas such as doorknobs and shopping cart handles

Other healthy habits are to:

  • Cough or sneeze into a tissue or shirt sleeve and dispose of the tissue immediately
  • Avoid shared use of personal items that can’t be disinfected, such as toothbrushes and razors
  • Avoid sharing towels
  • Cleaning and disinfecting commonly used surfaces regularly, especially in bathrooms and kitchens, using a bleach solution or rubbing alcohol

Persons with confirmed pertussis should be isolated at home until they have completed their course of antibiotics, usually 5 to 14 days depending on the antibiotic prescribed. Persons with suspected pertussis should also be isolated at home until negative PCR test results are available.

A child sent home from school with suspected pertussis will be excluded from school for at least 21 days or until coughing is completely resolved. Any student with confirmed pertussis who is not treated will be excluded from school for that length of time also. This applies to daycare centers as well (LADPH, 2014).


When a patient comes into the office with common respiratory complaints, the clinician should first conduct an interview to ascertain the symptoms being experienced, their time of onset, and the duration and severity of the illness. During this interview, the patient’s personal history and family health history should also be solicited. Next, a physical examination is performed, vital signs are recorded, and observations made about the patient’s appearance and activity. Specifically, clinicians will check for coughing (with or without a whoop), nasal congestion, apnea (in infants), fatigue, and a low-grade fever as potential signs of pertussis.

Diagnostic Testing

If enough evidence exists to suggest that pertussis may be present, then diagnostic tests are recommended. There are three main diagnostic tests for pertussis: culture, polymerase chain reaction (PCR), and serology.

  • Culture is the gold standard in that it is the only 100%-specific method and will identify which strains of B. pertussis are responsible for illness; however, it takes up to seven days to get results back.
  • PCR is faster and does not require live bacteria, although it can deliver false results. PCR is used to reproduce or amplify selected sections of DNA or RNA. Results can be obtained in 2 to 3 days.
  • Serology is most useful once the disease is in later stages—2 to 8 weeks following cough onset, when antibody titers are at their highest. Specimens can be tested via serology up to 12 weeks after coughing begins (CDC, 2013c).

Depending on when a patient visits the doctor’s office, different tests are more effective; within the first two weeks—when viable bacteria levels are highest—a culture or PCR provides the most accurate reading. However, many patients do not seek medical treatment until they are well into the paroxysmal stage of the illness, when coughing has become increasingly disruptive. From about three weeks on, serology is the most accurate diagnostic tool.

Graph: Optimal Timing for Diagnostic Testing

Source: CDC, 2013c.

For both PCR and cultures of suspected pertussis cases, a nasopharyngeal (NP) swab or aspirate must be obtained. According to the CDC (2013d), once an NP swab has been collected, it should be plated directly or placed into transport medium immediately. NP aspirates should be dispensed and plated within 24 hours of collection. The same specimen can be used for both a culture and PCR. (See the figures below for examples of how to successfully obtain an NP swab or aspirate. See also “Resources” at the end of this course for a link to a video demonstrating proper NP techniques.)

Illustration: collecting a nasopharyngeal speciment for testing. Photo: collecting a nasopharyngeal speciment for testing.

Proper technique for obtaining a nasopharyngeal specimen for isolation of B. pertussis. (Source: CDC, 2013d.)


The CDC recommends a series of PCR best practices to avoid inaccurate diagnosis of pertussis specimens. Specifically, the following guidelines are suggested:

  1. Test only patients who are symptomatic to avoid false positives.
  2. Take note of optimal timing: use PCR during the first three weeks of coughing, when pertussis DNA is still present in the nasopharynx.
  3. Don’t perform PCR after five days of antibiotic use. (The exact duration of positivity after antibiotic use is unknown.)
  4. Obtain specimens by aspiration or swabbing the posterior nasopharynx; don’t do throat swabs or anterior nasal swabs, where too little DNA is present to give accurate results.
  5. Use polyester, rayon, or nylon-flocked swabs; do not use cotton-tipped or calcium alginate swabs, which skew results.
  6. NP aspirates that flush the posterior nasopharynx with a saline wash are preferable to swabs because a larger bacterial DNA sample can be collected.
  7. Avoid cross-contamination from vaccines: prepare and administer pertussis vaccines in a different location from that where specimens are collected, wear gloves and discard them immediately after procedures, and clean clinic surfaces with a 10% bleach solution.
  8. Use semisolid or non-liquid transport media or transport of a dry swab without media to prevent the spread of DNA from surfaces to collected samples. If using liquid transport medium, the swab stick should be handled with care and only above the red line or indentation which marks where the shaft is snapped off after insertion into the medium to avoid false positive results.

Source: CDC, 2013e.

CASE  (continued)

At the doctor’s office, the nurse, Kathy, interviews Maria and finds that Grace’s symptoms have been present for the past two weeks, mild at first but increasing in severity with recent episodes in which she appears to stop breathing. The fact that Grace has been suffering from apnea immediately arouses Kathy’s suspicion that this illness is more than a common cold.

Noting that Maria is also sniffling, Kathy conducts a recent family health history and learns that Maria herself has been experiencing respiratory infection symptoms for the past seven days. Because she knows that previously immunized adults may manifest only mild symptoms of pertussis, and because she understands that waning immunity in adults can lead to the accidental spread of the disease, Kathy suspects that Maria’s illness may be connected to Grace’s apnea.

Kathy reports her findings to the physician, and following physical examination, it is recommended that both mother and daughter undergo diagnostic testing for pertussis. Nasopharyngeal specimens are obtained from both and sent for PCR testing and culture.

Reporting a Pertussis Diagnosis

Pertussis is a nationally notifiable disease, and as such, clinical cases must be reported to local health departments. Tracking pertussis can help prevent its spread while also revealing patterns about how, when, and where the disease is manifesting itself. Both probable and confirmed cases should be reported.

To clarify the distinction between probable and confirmed, the CDC provides a clinical case definition that is crucial for healthcare professionals to follow given the limitations of lab diagnostics and the underreporting of pertussis cases due to misdiagnosis.

Type Requirements
Source: CDC, 2014a.
Clinical case definition In the absence of a more likely diagnosis, a cough illness lasting ≥2 weeks with one of the following symptoms:
  • Paroxysms of coughing, OR
  • Inspiratory “whoop,” OR
  • Posttussive vomiting, OR
  • Apnea (with or without cyanosis) (for infants aged <1 year only)
Probable case classification
  • Meets the clinical case definition, is not laboratory confirmed, and is not epidemiologically linked to a laboratory-confirmed case, OR
  • For infants aged <1 year only:
    • Acute cough illness of any duration with at least one of the following signs or symptoms:
      • Paroxysms of coughing, OR
      • Inspiratory “whoop,” OR
      • Posttussive vomiting, OR
      • Apnea (with or without cyanosis)
    • Polymerase chain reaction (PCR) positive for pertussis, OR
  • For infants aged <1 year only:
    • Acute cough illness of any duration with at least one of the following signs or symptoms:
      • Paroxysms of coughing, OR
      • Inspiratory “whoop”, OR
      • Posttussive vomiting, OR
      • Apnea (with or without cyanosis)
    • Contact with a laboratory-confirmed case of pertussis
Confirmed case classification
  • Acute cough illness of any duration with isolation of B. pertussis from a clinical specimen, OR
  • Meets the clinical case definition AND is polymerase chain reaction (PCR) positive for pertussis, OR
  • Meets the clinical case definition AND had contact with a laboratory-confirmed case of pertussis


The initial diagnosis of a patient with pertussis is based on the case assessment (oral interview and physical examination). However, because pertussis presents like other common respiratory infections for the first few weeks, and because some patients may be asymptomatic, it can be difficult to make an initial pertussis diagnosis. Moreover, many patients often wait to visit the doctor until the disease has already progressed to the second stage, when diagnostic tests are limited to serological assays.

Thus, the CDC (2013f) recommends that clinicians strongly consider treating prior to confirming test results if the clinical history is strongly suggestive or if a patient is at risk for severe or complicated disease (e.g., infants). Given the potential health risks associated with pertussis, its high degree of contagiousness, and the rise in incidence of the disease, treating suspected cases prior to receiving definitive results can be a responsible option for healthcare providers.

Pharmacologic Intervention

In some cases, there is little to prescribe beyond a regimen of rest, since pharmaceuticals are an effective treatment option for pertussis only if administered early on in the course of the disease. The decision to prescribe pharmaceuticals varies depending on the age of the patient, risk factors involved, severity of symptoms, how long a patient has already been ill, and so on. If drugs are prescribed, the macrolides azithromycin, clarithromycin, and erythromycin are the preferred treatment for persons at least 1 month of age.

The CDC presents specific recommendations for pharmacologic intervention:

  • For patients >1 year of age, antibiotics should be administered within three weeks of the cough onset. The usual regimen is 4 divided daily doses for 14 days.
  • For patients <1 year of age, drugs should be administered up to six weeks after cough onset. The usual regimen is 4 divided daily doses for 14 days.
  • Pregnant women (especially near term) should be treated within 6 weeks of cough onset.
  • For infants <1 month of age, azithromycin is preferred for postexposure prophylaxis and treatment because azithromycin has not been associated with infantile hypertrophic pyloric stenosis (IHPS) (see below), whereas erythromycin has been. The risk of developing severe pertussis and life-threatening complications outweighs the potential risk of IHPS that has been associated with macrolide use. Infants <1 month of age who receive a macrolide should be monitored for the development of IHPS and for other serious adverse events. For persons 2 months of age and older, an alternative to macrolides is trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole.

Some negative side effects, including gastrointestinal ailments and rashes, may result from the use of macrolides. When choosing which drug to administer, clinicians should take into consideration its safety, effectiveness, cost, tolerability, and ease of regimen.


Infantile hypertrophic pyloric stenosis (IHPS) is a form of gastric outlet obstruction that occurs in about 3 in every 1,000 babies born in the United States. When an infant suffers from IHPS, the pylorus muscles of the stomach thicken abnormally and block the pyloric channel so that food is unable to leave the stomach and enter the small intestine. The condition can cause vomiting, dehydration, and fluid imbalances and must be surgically repaired. There is a causal link between use of erythromycin in the first 2 weeks of life and development of IHPS, so it should be avoided as a pertussis treatment in infants <1 month old.

Source: Cronan, 2011.


When a patient with pertussis is experiencing extreme breathing difficulties or other complications, hospitalization is recommended. Once admitted, patients may receive IV fluids to alleviate dehydration. Airway suctioning may be required, and an oxygen tent with high humidity or a ventilator is often used to assist with breathing. Prevention of secondary infections and attentive nursing care are important components of hospitalization.

CASE  (continued)

Because Grace has had a cough illness lasting two weeks or longer with apnea, the primary care provider (PCP) determines that Grace meets the clinical definition of pertussis and that Maria may be the source of her illness.

Strongly suspecting that Grace and Maria will test positive for pertussis based on clinical history, their PCP starts both of them on a regimen of azithromycin, from which Grace develops gastrointestinal side effects. After a day on the medication, Grace, who is now suffering from both diarrhea and a more severe cough that keeps her from nursing effectively, becomes dehydrated. Maria, noting her daughter’s listlessness and inability to ingest liquids, calls their PCP, who advises her to take Grace to the hospital. Grace is admitted to the hospital, given IV fluids to alleviate her dehydration, and closely monitored for emergence of other complications.

At-Home Care

For treating a child with pertussis at home, the CDC (2013g) recommends:

  • Administering antibiotics exactly as prescribed
  • Not administering cough medications unless instructed by the healthcare provider (cough medications are not recommended for children under 4 years of age)
  • Keeping the home free from cough-triggering irritants such as smoke, dust, and chemical fumes
  • Using a clean, cool mist vaporizer to help loosen secretions and soothe the cough
  • Practicing good hand washing
  • Preventing dehydration by administering plenty of fluids, including water, juices, soups, and fruits
  • Offering small, frequent meals to help prevent vomiting
  • Cleaning surfaces with an approved disinfectant such as a 10% bleach solution

A 1:10 solution of household bleach includes 1 part bleach and 9 parts water. The key is using the same volume as a “part”—i.e., a measuring tablespoon or a measuring cup.

  • Working in well-ventilated area, measure 9 parts water into a closable container that will hold the total volume of solution.
  • Measure 1 part of household bleach into the same container.
  • Close and label the container with the name of the solution (one which everyone in the household can read and understand), the date and time prepared, and an identifier for the person preparing the solution.
  • Prepare only as much solution as needed for 24 hours.
  • When using, pour solution from the container.
  • Do not return used solution to the container.
  • Discard any unused solution within 24 hours, rinse the container, and prepare new solution as needed.

Source: CDC, 2009.

Postexposure Prophylaxis

The CDC (2013) is actively promoting the judicious use of antibiotics among healthcare providers and parents and supports targeting postexposure prophylaxis (PEP) antibiotics to persons at high risk of developing severe pertussis and to persons who will have close contact with those at high risk of developing pertussis. It therefore recommends providing PEP to:

  • All household contacts of a pertussis case
  • Persons who are at risk for developing severe illness or have close contact with a person at high risk within 21 days of exposure to an infectious pertussis case
CASE  (continued)

With excellent hospital care, Grace survives the complications brought on by her pertussis infection. After seven days of treatment in which she receives IV antibiotics as well as fluids to combat her dehydration, Grace is released from the hospital and returns home to her family. She still has a cough that will linger for several more weeks, and her parents watch closely to make sure that she doesn’t develop a secondary infection as indicated by a fever.

Meanwhile, Maria is still taking her own antibiotics, and her husband, Greg, has also been given a prophylactic prescription, since he hasn’t received a Tdap booster and will be coming into close contact with both infected family members. With rest, fluids, and time, both Grace and Maria gradually return to good health.

PCR results and cultures return positive for both Grace and Maria, and their primary care provider reports two confirmed cases of pertussis to the local health department.

Complications Associated with Pertussis

As pertussis progresses, it may lead to related complications that can pose serious health risks. Life-threatening complications are most common in infants under 3 months of age. According to the CDC (2014f), hospitalization is most common in infants younger than 6 months of age.

Common complications for hospitalized infants include pneumonia, convulsions, apnea, encephalopathy (as a result of hypoxia from coughing or possibly from toxin), and death. For those infants who die from the disease, refractory pulmonary hypertension is common, and encephalopathy occurs in 20% of these cases.

Other complications can include anorexia, dehydration, difficulty sleeping, epistaxis, hernias, otitis media, urinary incontinence, pneumothorax, rectal prolapse, and subdural hematomas (CDC, 2014f).

For adolescents and adults, the kinds of complications stemming from pertussis tend to be more directly related to the physical effects of the cough, and less than 5% of patients require hospitalization. Common complications in those who do require hospital care are listed in the table below. Other complications can include anorexia, dehydration, epistaxis, hernias, and otitis media. More severe complications can include encephalopathy as a result of hypoxia from coughing or possibly from toxin, pneumothorax, rectal prolapse, subdural hematomas, and seizures (CDC, 2014f).

Other less common complications have been reported, including ulcers on the tongue and mouth, low blood pressure requiring medication, kidney failure requiring temporary dialysis, and damaged vocal cords (NHS, 2013).



  • Apnea (67%)
  • Pneumonia (23%)
  • Convulsions (1.6%)
  • Death (1.6%)
  • Encephalopathy (0.4%)


  • Weight loss (33%)
  • Urinary incontinence (28%)
  • Pneumonia (20%)
  • Syncope (6%)
  • Rib fractures (4%)

Source: CDC, 2014f.


Pertussis, or whooping cough, has traditionally been seen as a childhood disease, but in fact, it is potentially dangerous for people of all ages. Infants are the most vulnerable to the illness and often develop related complications that require hospitalization and sometimes lead to death. Violent paroxysms of coughing and the extended duration of pertussis make it particularly challenging to endure, but if caught within the first few weeks of onset, the disease can be treated with antibiotics.

Waning immunity in adolescents and adults has challenged efforts to eradicate the disease, and the incidence of pertussis is currently on the rise among all age groups under 20 years of age, reaching epidemic proportions in some areas of the United States. Childhood vaccination and subsequent booster shots for adolescents and adults are the best method for combating the spread of this infectious disease.


Pertussis (CDC)

Pertussis (including audio of “whooping”)
Parents of Kids with Infectious Diseases

Pertussis: Specimen Collection (CDC)

Pyloric Stenosis (KidsHealth)


NOTE: Complete URLs for references retrieved from online sources are provided in the PDF of this course (view/download PDF from the menu at the top of this page).

American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). (2013). Immunization resources: addressing common concerns of vaccine-hesitant parents. Retrieved from

American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). (2014). Immunization: 2013 immunization schedules. Retrieved from

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2014a). Pertussis (whooping cough): surveillance & reporting: trends. Retrieved from

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2014b). Pertussis (whooping cough): pertussis outbreak trends. Retrieved from

Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2014c). Tdap for pregnant women: information for providers. Retrieved from http:///

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention CDC). (2014d). Surround babies with protection. Retrieved from

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (2014e). Postexposure antimicrobial prophylaxis. Retrieved from

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2014f). Pertussis (whooping cough): clinical complications. Retrieved from

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, 2013a). Pertussis (whooping cough): clinical features. Retrieved from

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC, 2013b). Pertussis (whooping cough): vaccines and immunizations. Retrieved from

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2013c). Pertussis (whooping cough): diagnosis confirmation. Retrieved from

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2013d). Pertussis (whooping cough): specimen collection: proper technique for obtaining a nasopharyngeal specimen for isolation of Bordetella pertussis. Retrieved from

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (2013e). Pertussis (whooping cough): best practices for healthcare professionals on the use of polymerase chain reaction (PCR) for diagnosing pertussis. Retrieved from

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2013f). Pertussis (whooping cough): treatment: timing and antimicrobial choice. Retrieved from

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2013g). Pertussis (whooping cough): pertussis diagnosis and treatment. Retrieved from

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) (2012). Updated recommendation for use of tetanus toxoid, reduced diphtheria toxoid, and acellular pertussis (Tdap) vaccine in adults 65 years and older: Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP). MMWR, 61(25), 468–70. Retrieved from

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). (2009). Guideline for disinfection and sterilization in healthcare facilities, 2008. Retrieved from

County of Los Angeles, Department of Public Health (LADPH). (2014). Acute communicable disease control manual. Pertussis (whooping cough). Retrieved from

Cronan KM. (2011). KidsHealth from Nemours: pyloric stenosis. Retrieved from

Leoffelholz M. (2012). Towards improved accuracy of Bordetella pertussis nucleic acid amplification tests. J Clin Microbio. Doi:10.1128/JCM.00612-12. Retrieved from

National Health Service (NHS). (2013). Whooping cough: complications. Retrieved from

Parch L. (2014). Why whooping cough is rising despite a new vaccine. Retrieved from

Public Health Agency of Canada (PHA). (2010). Bordetella pertussis: pathogen safety data sheets: infectious substances. Retrieved from

Roush S. (2014). Enhancing surveillance: manual for the surveillance of vaccine-preventable diseases. Retrieved from

Todar K. (2012). Bordetella pertussis and whooping cough. Online textbook of bacteriology. Retrieved from

U.S. Food and Drug Administration (USFDA). (2013). News release: FDA study helps provide an understanding of rising rates of whooping cough and response to vaccination. Retrieved from

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