Updated December 22, 2023

Pertussis is a disease of the respiratory tract that makes it hard to clear mucus from the throat and lungs. It is also known as whooping cough because of the “whooping” sound that people make when trying to breathe for air after coughing. It is caused by Bordetella pertussis, a bacteria (germ) found in the mouth, nose and throat of the infected person.

Pertussis infections can happen any time of the year and anyone can get it, but it is most dangerous for children under one year old, especially if they have not started or completed their vaccinations.

Pertussis spreads easily between people from respiratory droplets that are made while talking, coughing or sneezing. They can spread by direct contact or the air.

A person who has pertussis and does not get it treated can spread it to others weeks after the coughing or other symptoms start, even if the symptoms are mild.

The first symptoms of pertussis may show up seven to ten days after being infected with the bacteria. It starts like a common cold, with mild fever, runny nose, red watery eyes, and a mild cough. It can then turn into serious coughing fits that last weeks or even months. The coughing fits may cause difficulty breathing, choking and vomiting. In some babies and young children, they don’t cough at all but have apnea (life-threatening pauses in breathing) instead.

Severe complications may include pneumonia (infection of the lungs), seizures and damage to the brain. Babies under one year of age with pertussis are at highest risk of getting very sick and often need to be hospitalized. Almost all deaths from pertussis happen in children who are under six months of age.

For older children and adults, symptoms may be less severe. They may appear as cold-like symptoms with a cough that lasts longer than a week.

The best way to prevent pertussis is to make sure you and your child(ren) are vaccinated. In Canada, pertussis vaccination is a part of Ontario’s Publicly Funded Routine Immunization Schedule 

  • One vaccine (e.g. DTap-IPV-Hib) is given at two, four, six and 18 months of age to protect against diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, polio and haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib).
  • A booster dose of a pertussis-containing vaccine is given at four to six years of age and 14 to 16 years of age.
  • One dose of pertussis-containing vaccine (e.g. Tdap) should be given to all adults 18 years of age and older.
  • One dose of Tdap vaccine should also be given in every pregnancy to protect the newborn, ideally between 27 and 32 weeks of gestation.

If you or your child misses a vaccine or is due for the next dose, these vaccines are available from a health care provider’s office.

If you think you or your child may have pertussis or have been in contact with someone who has it, call a health care provider right away. Early treatment is more effective. Tell the health care provider that you think you may have pertussis before any in-person visits. This will allow them to prepare for your visit and protect other patients.

A health care provider can make a diagnosis using laboratory test results and by assessing your symptoms. The test is done by a swab collected through the nose and sent to the lab for pertussis testing.

A person with pertussis is usually given an antibiotic medication, because pertussis is caused by a bacteria. People who may have been in close contact with someone who has pertussis may also be given an antibiotic. This includes people living in the same house and other close contacts.

People diagnosed with pertussis or suspected of having it should stay home from childcare, school or work. They should not participate in group activities, have visitors and should avoid contact with babies, young children, and people who are pregnant until five days of antibiotic treatment have been completed or 21 days after the start of symptoms

  • Talk to your health care provider or call Toronto Public Health at 416-338-7600.
  • Call 811 to connect to a registered nurse day or night for free, secure and confidential health advice.