About Pertussis (Whooping Cough)

Pertussis, also known as whooping cough, is a highly contagious respiratory disease, caused by a type of bacteria called Bordetella pertussis. After coughing fits, someone with pertussis often needs to take deep breaths, which result in a “whooping” sound. It is important to remember that the “whoop” may not be heard in teens and adults.

How is it transmitted?

Pertussis is a contagious disease only found in humans and is spread from person to person. People with pertussis usually spread the disease by coughing or sneezing while in close contact with others, who then breathe in the pertussis bacteria. If pertussis is circulating in the community, there is a chance that a fully vaccinated person, of any age, can catch this contagious disease. If you develop a cold with a severe cough, or a cough that lasts for a long time, you may have pertussis.

Signs and Symptoms

Symptoms of pertussis usually develop within 5-10 days after exposure, however sometimes symptoms take up to 3 weeks to appear. If you have been vaccinated, the infection is usually less severe.

While pertussis can cause serious illness in infants and children, symptoms may be mild in adults. The disease usually starts with cold-like symptoms, such as a mild cough or fever. After 1 to 2 weeks, severe coughing can begin. Unlike the common cold, pertussis can become a series of coughing fits that continue for weeks.

Pertussis may cause violent and rapid coughing. This extreme coughing may cause one to vomit and/or lead to fatigue. The “whoop” is often not present and infection is generally milder in teens and adults.


Student Health may prescribe antibiotics for the treatment of pertussis.  People diagnosed with pertussis should stay at home and away from others until they have completed 5 days of their antibiotics (i.e. self-isolate). This is an important prevention strategy to avoid the spread of pertussis. In the event of an exposure to someone with confirmed pertussis, prophylactic antibiotics may be recommended.


Vaccination is the most effective way to protect oneself against pertussis. Although pertussis is a required vaccination for Penn students, one may still be exposed to the disease through working with children or other unvaccinated individuals. The easiest thing for students to do is to get the Tdap (Tetanus, Diphtheria and Pertussis) vaccine, if they have not already received it. Tdap can be given regardless of when the last Td (Tetanus and Diphtheria) vaccine was received.

If you think you have pertussis or have been in close contact with someone who has confirmed pertussis, please contact Student Health Service 215-746-3535, press option 3 to speak with a nurse.

Practice good hand hygiene:

  • Wash your hands with soap and warm water or an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol
  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze. If you don’t have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your sleeve or elbow
  • Self-isolate if you suspect you have pertussis




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(updated 7/14/2015)