Pertussis Fact Sheet

November 16, 2012


Pertussis (Whooping Cough) is a highly communicable bacterial infection that affects the respiratory tract. This past year, freshmen were required to receive the Pertussis vaccine before entering Harvard – the vaccine is 85 percent effective at preventing the disease.

It is important to be aware of the signs and symptoms of Pertussis and to take commonsense precautions to stay healthy as winter approaches.

Pertussis usually begins with cold-like symptoms, such as nasal congestion, sneezing, and a dry cough. The cough becomes increasingly severe over one to two weeks, and can last for four to six weeks. There is generally no fever. In the later stage, the coughing may become uncontrollable, and produce a “whooping sound.”

The organism that causes Pertussis resides in the nose, mouth, and throat of those who are already ill. It is sprayed into the air by coughing, sneezing, or talking. Other people in close proximity can inhale these droplets and become ill. Organisms can also be spread by contact with objects used by an infected person, such as a dirty tissue or sharing a glass or a water bottle. After exposure, it can take 6-21 days to develop symptoms.

Like the flu and other maladies often associated with the onset of colder weather, good hygiene can help prevent Pertussis. Tips include:

  • Always cover your nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze
  • Wash your hands frequently
  • Dispose of used tissues and other similar items appropriately
  • Do not share glasses, eating utensils, water bottles, etc.

If you believe you have been exposed to Pertussis, we recommend that you contact HUHS to be evaluated. If you are diagnosed with Pertussis, you will be treated with antibiotics and advised to maintain social distance from other students, cover your cough, not share eating utensils, and consistently wash your hands. The illness can take four to six weeks to resolve. If you are treated, you will still be contagious for another five days.

Children who have not received three doses of the Pertussis vaccine (usually completed at six months of age) are at a higher risk of contracting the illness, and could have more severe complications. For this reason, these children should avoid people who have been diagnosed with or potentially exposed to Pertussis, as well as large gatherings — i.e. dining halls, holiday parties, etc.

Contact Harvard University Health Services if you have any questions or concerns. For additional information, please visit the Massachusetts Department of Public Health website.