Diseases Home > Causes of Whooping Cough

The bacterium Bordetella pertussis is the primary whooping cough cause. There are no other causes, and the infection follows no distinct seasonal pattern. People may become infected with the bacteria by breathing in tiny droplets released into the air by an infected person's cough or sneeze. Infection can also result from touching a recently infected surface and then touching one's own mouth, nose, or eyes.

What Causes Whooping Cough?

The cause of whooping cough (also known as pertussis) is a bacterial infection. The bacterium that is responsible for the disease is called Bordetella pertussis (B. pertussis).
B. Pertussis
A person can become infected with B. pertussis bacteria through direct contact with contaminated droplets. This can occur when he or she breathes in tiny droplets released into the air by an infected person's cough or sneeze, or when someone touches a recently infected surface and then touches his or her own mouth, nose, or eyes.
Once inside the airways, B. pertussis bacteria produce toxins that interfere with the respiratory tract's normal ability to eliminate germs. The bacteria also produce chemicals that cause inflammation, damaging the lining of the breathing passages.
Commonly thought of as a childhood illness, whooping cough actually affects people of all ages. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 5,000 to 7,000 cases are reported in the United States each year. Moreover, whooping cough has been increasingly reported among adolescents and adults in the last several years. This is important because those who have a cough may not realize that they have pertussis and may be the primary source of infection for infants, who have the greatest risk of dying from the disease.
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Last reviewed by: Arthur Schoenstadt, MD
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