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Causes of whooping cough

By Dr Ananya Mandal, MD

Whooping cough or Pertussis usually affects infants and young children but may infect teenagers and adults as well. (1)

Bordetella Pertussis

Whooping cough is a highly infectious disease caused by bacteria: Bordetella Pertussis.

The infectious particles are carried in the droplets of mucus that are released in air with each bouts of coughing or sneezing by the infected person.

Most babies get the infection from parents, older siblings, or other caregivers who have milder form of the disease and are unaware of their condition. The condition in babies might be life threatening but in teenagers and adults it is less serious.

The bacteria attach to the cilia, which are tiny hair like projections lining the airways particularly in the upper respiratory system.

Once attached to the cilia, they release toxins that damage the mucus membranes. This leads to a severe inflammation.

The inflammation is brought about by various factors like pertussis toxin, filamentous hemagglutinin, tracheal cytotoxin, dermonecrotic toxin, tracheal colonization factor, serum resistance factor etc.

These lead to a deeper damage and cause the symptoms of the condition to persist much longer than the actual existence of the infecting organism. (2, 3)

Prevention of whooping cough

Whooping cough is one of the commonest vaccine preventable diseases.

Children are vaccinated to prevent incidence of the condition. This has drastically reduced the incidence of the condition.

Incidence of whooping cough

In the 1990s Bordetella pertussis caused an estimated 20 to 40 million cases of pertussis worldwide and 200 000 to 400 000 deaths each year.

The cases of whooping cough may rise every 3-5 years. The reason behind sudden rises and increases in numbers of cases of whooping cough may be twofold.

First is the wearing off of the effects of the vaccine as the child grows into teenage years. Thus an outbreak of the condition leaves adolescents and adults vulnerable to getting the infection.

Also babies need at least three shots of the vaccine to be fully resistant to the infection. This leaves infants below six months at risk of catching the infection. (4, 5)

Edited by , BA Hons (Cantab)

Further Reading

What is whooping cough?
Whooping cough Symptoms
Whooping cough Diagnosis
Whooping cough Treatment

Last Updated: Jun 6, 2012

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