Pertussis is a bacterial infection that has very characteristic symptoms. These symptoms can be divided into three stages. The first stage lasts up to two weeks. During this time, the person will show symptoms similar to those of the common cold. The second stage is more severe with characteristic whooping cough, vomiting, and other complications. The third stage is a stage of convalescence which means that the body is gradually recovering from the illness. Here are the ten most common symptoms of pertussis.
During the first stage of a pertussis infection, the person will have many symptoms that are similar to those of the common cold. These symptoms include a mild cough, sneezes, a runny nose, and a low-grade fever. That is why it can be different to clearly know that the person has pertussis and not just a regular cold. Coughing is a normal physiologic reflex that helps keep your breathing passages open and prevent anything to block the airway. However, if you have an infection in the upper respiratory tract, it can irritate the mucous membranes and make you cough frequently. In the case of pertussis, the cough will start off as a mild cough but will later on progress to a more severe cough in the second stage.
Irritation of the mucous membranes of the upper respiratory tract will lead the person to sneeze. The body uses sneezing to get rid of the irritant by forcefully pushing air through the nose and mouth. It is important that you notice that pertussis is very contagious during the first stage of infection. This means that the people affected with pertussis can easily spread the infection to those around them as soon as they start to show symptoms and up to two weeks.
Normally, the respiratory tract secrets a certain amount of mucus. This mucus traps many tiny particles and prevents them from reaching the lungs. The respiratory tract also has structures that look like hair coming out of the mucous membrane. These structures are called cilia, and they help move particles trapped in the mucus. Just like an escalator, the cilia move these particles away and keep the airway clear. The bacteria responsible for pertussis infection is called B. pertussis. When it reaches the mucous membrane, it attaches itself to the cilia of the respiratory tract and starts to produce toxins that paralyze the cilia. It also causes inflammation in the mucous membrane which will cause the cells to secrete more mucus. This excess of mucus will cause a runny nose.
A fever is when your body's temperature becomes higher than the normal range. Each one of us has a normal body temperature that can be slightly higher or lower than the average. A low-grade fever is an increase in the body temperature that is higher than 98.6° F (37° C) but doesn't exceed 100.4° F (38°) for one day (24 hours). Although it makes us feel unwell and uncomfortable, fever helps the body fight infections more effectively. You may also start sweating, shiver, experience a headache, feel pain in your muscles, and some people may even lose their appetite.
After the one or two weeks, the second stage begins. In this stage, there are repeated fits of severe coughs. In each fit, the person will experience from five to ten forceful coughs that can't be controlled or stopped. After each fit, the person produces a high-pitched gasp as they breathe in. This gasp or "whoop" is why pertussis is sometimes called whooping cough. This stage can last up to 10 weeks or even more. That is why pertussis is known to be characterized by "a 100-day cough."
During the second stage, the severe cough fits will lead to some serious effects on the whole body. Coughing is a forceful movement that can get repeated up to ten times during a single fit. That may cause the pressure inside the vessels to increase which may cause the eye to bleed in what is known as a subconjunctival hemorrhage. It may also affect an artery that is present in the back of the neck called the vertebral artery. The lining of the artery may develop a flap-like tear of its lining that is called vertebral artery dissection. Severe coughs also increase the pressure inside the abdomen which may lead to a hernia or urinary incontinence. When the pressure in the chest is increased, it can lead to a fracture of the ribs. That is how severe those cough fits can be.
People affected by pertussis don't feel the urge to vomit during the violent cough fits. They feel it in between the fits. Their eyes become watery, and they start to salivate more. The reason behind this urge to vomit could be the increased pressure inside the abdomen which adds more pressure on the internal organs and could stimulate them to start the vomiting process. We may also blame the toxins that bacteria produce for starting the vomiting process. This chronic vomiting can be dangerous if the condition lasts a long time and can lead the person to lose a large amount of water and electrolytes.
Fatigue is when a person feels drained and exhausted all the time. We have already explained the violent and severe nature of the coughs in the second stage of the disease. A severe cough will drain the energy of the affected person and make him feel very tired. Some people become so tired that they faint after the fit of a severe cough. Additionally, severe coughing makes it difficult for the patient to sleep. That's why the lack of sleep is another important factor.
The fever, severe coughs, and overall exhaustion may make people affected by pertussis lose their appetite and want to eat less. They may feel nausea and experience vomiting in between the fits of severe coughs which decreases their appetite even further. Some people also experience diarrhea early on which may lead to malabsorption and decrease the nutrients that the body receives. On the long term, this can lead to weight loss.
Newborn babies and children less than one year old may not have the classic symptoms of the severe fits of coughs. Instead, they may stop breathing for periods of time. Pertussis infection is especially dangerous for children and can cause many complications including lung inflammation, brain disease, seizures, and death. That is why it is important to give children the initial dose of the pertussis vaccine between six and eight weeks of age.
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