Pertussis, or whooping cough, is an acute infectious disease caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis. Outbreaks of pertussis were first described in the 16th century, and the organism was first isolated in 1906. In the 20th century, pertussis was one of the most common childhood diseases and a major cause of childhood mortality in the United States. Before the availability of pertussis vaccine in the 1940s, more than 200,000 cases of pertussis were reported annually. Since widespread use of the vaccine began, incidence has decreased more than 80% compared with the prevaccine era. Pertussis remains a major health problem among children in developing countries, with 195,000 deaths resulting from the disease in 2008 (World Health Organization estimate.
The incubation period of pertussis is commonly 7–10 days, with a range of 4–21 days, and rarely may be as long as 42 days. The clinical course of the illness is divided into three stages. The first stage, the catarrhal stage, is characterized by the insidious onset of coryza (runny nose), sneezing, low-grade fever, and a mild, occasional cough, similar to the common cold. The cough gradually becomes more severe, and after 1–2 weeks, the second, or paroxysmal stage, begins. Fever is generally minimal throughout the course of the illness. It is during the paroxysmal stage that the diagnosis of pertussis is usually suspected. Characteristically, the patient has bursts, or paroxysms, of numerous, rapid coughs, apparently due to difficulty expelling thick mucus from the tracheobronchial tree. At the end of the paroxysm, a long inspiratory effort is usually accompanied by a characteristic high-pitched whoop. During such an attack, the patient may become cyanotic (turn blue). Children and young infants, especially, appear very ill and distressed. Vomiting and exhaustion commonly follow the episode. The person does not appear to be ill between attacks. In the convalescent stage, recovery is gradual. The cough becomes less paroxysmal and disappears in 2 to 3 weeks. However, paroxysms often recur with subsequent respiratory infections for many months after the onset of pertussis.