Whooping Cough

Before there was a vaccine, whooping cough was a very common childhood disease and a major cause of childhood deaths in the U.S. Today, the vaccine has prevented most cases.

Whooping Cough Overview

Reviewed: July 21, 2014

Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, is a disease caused by a bacterial infection. Pertussis causes severe and uncontrollable coughing. "Whooping cough" name comes from the noise you make when you take a breath after you cough. The coughing spells may result in a choking fits or vomiting.

Although whooping cough can happen to anyone, it is more often seen in infants and children. Pertussis is most dangerous for infants. About half of infants younger than 1 year of age, who are diagnosed with whooping cough, are hospitalized.

Treatment with antibiotics may help in treating whooping cough if given early.


Whooping Cough Symptoms

Whooping cough usually begins with cold-like symptoms such as runny nose, low grade fever, and a mild cough.

In infants, you may not even notice the cough as the cough can be minimal or absent. However, you may notice apnea in infants which is a pause in the breathing pattern.

After 1 to 2 weeks, you may notice severe coughing. Pertussis can become a series of coughing spells that continue on for weeks.

Pertussis can cause extreme and rapid coughing. As a result, you are forced to inhale with a loud "whooping" sound. The coughing spells my result in vomiting and feeling very tired.

Infected people are most contagious up to about 2 weeks after the cough begins. Antibiotics may shorten the amount of time someone is contagious.

The coughing fits can go on for up to 10 weeks or more.

As the illness continues, coughing fits typically become more common and severe. The "whoop" is often not there and the infection is less severe in teens and adults, especially those who have been vaccinated.

Whooping Cough Causes

Whooping cough (pertussis) is a respiratory illness and is caused by a type of bacteria called Bordetella pertussis.

These bacteria attach to the cilia (tiny, hair-like extensions) that line part of the upper respiratory system. The bacteria release toxins, which damages the cilia and causes swelling.

Pertussis is a very contagious disease, found in humans, and is spread from person to person. Pertussis usually spreads through coughing or sneezing while in close contact with others. Many infants who get pertussis are infected by family members or caregivers. Symptoms of pertussis typically develop within 7–10 days after exposure to pertussis. However, you may not even notice symptoms for as long as 6 weeks.


Whooping Cough Diagnosis

Pertussis (whooping cough) can be diagnosed by the following:

  • Physical examination
  • Blood test
  • Chest x-rays
  • Nose or throat cultures

Living With Whooping Cough

Today, most cases are prevented by vaccines, but vaccines are not 100% effective.

There is a chance that a fully vaccinated person, of any age, can catch pertussis, but the infection is usually less severe.

Whooping Cough Treatments

Antibiotics are typically used to treat pertussis. Starting treatment early is very important as it may reduce the severity of the infection. Starting treatment early typically means starting treatment before the coughing fits begin. Treatment after three weeks of illness is unlikely to help, because the bacteria has already caused damage to your body and at this point is gone from your body.

In addition, treatment can help prevent the spread of pertussis.

Unless instructed by your doctor, do not give cough medications. Giving cough medicine probably will not help and is usually not recommended for kids younger than 4 years old.

Manage pertussis and reduce the risk of spread to others by:

  • Practice good hand washing.
  • Drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration.
  • Keep your home free from irritants such as smoke, dust, and chemical fumes as these may trigger coughing.

If your child requires treatment for pertussis in the hospital:

In some cases, pertussis can be very serious and require treatment in the hospital. Infants are at increased risk for severe complications associated with pertussis.

Whooping Cough Prognosis

Recovery from pertussis can happen, but will happen slowly. The cough will become less severe and less common. However, coughing fits can come back with other respiratory infections for many months after pertussis.

Infants and Children:

Pertussis (whooping cough) can result in serious and in some cases life-threatening complications in infants and young children, especially those who are not fully vaccinated.

In infants younger than 1 year of age who get pertussis, about half are hospitalized. The younger the infant is, the greater the risk for needing treatment in the hospital. Of those infants who require hospitalization:

  • 1 in 4 (23%) get pneumonia
  • 1 or 2 in 100 (1.6%) will have convulsions
  • Two thirds (67%) will have apnea (slowed or stopped breathing)
  • 1 in 300 (0.4%) will have encephalopathy (disease of the brain)
  • 1 or 2 in 100 (1.6%) will die

Teens and Adults:

In one study, less than 5% of teens and adults with pertussis required hospitalized. Two percent of these patients, developed pneumonia (lung infection).