Diagnosing Pertussis

Question

How is whooping cough diagnosed?

Dr. Greene's Answer

Current lab tests to detect pertussis are either slow, cumbersome, not readily available, or often fail to pick up the disease. For this reason, the number of proven cases reported to the health department vastly underestimates the number of cases in the community. Many physicians rely on the working definition of pertussis. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, people are considered to have pertussis if they have a cough lasting for at least 14 days (with no other confirmed cause) and any one of the following symptoms (even if they have been immunized):

  • Coughing spasms or fits (coughs comes in clusters).
  • A whooping noise while breathing in.
  • Vomiting caused by the cough.

 

The case is called confirmed pertussis if there is a positive lab test or if there has been exposure to someone with a positive lab test. During a pertussis outbreak, anyone who has a cough lasting at least 14 days (with no other known cause) probably has pertussis, even in the absence of other specific symptoms.

Medical Review on: July 14, 2010
About the Author
Photo of Alan Greene MD
Dr. Greene is a practicing physician, author, national and international TEDx speaker, and global health advocate. He is a graduate of Princeton University and University of California San Francisco.
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