Whooping cough (pertussis) is a highly contagious respiratory tract infection. In many people, it’s marked by a severe hacking cough followed by a high-pitched intake of breath that sounds like “whoop.”
Once you become infected with whooping cough, it takes about seven to 10 days for signs and symptoms to appear, though it can sometimes take longer. They’re usually mild at first and resemble those of a common cold:
- Runny nose
- Nasal congestion
- Red, watery eyes
After a week or two, signs and symptoms worsen. Thick mucus accumulates inside your airways, causing uncontrollable coughing. Severe and prolonged coughing attacks may:
- Provoke vomiting
- Result in a red or blue face
- Cause extreme fatigue
- End with a high-pitched “whoop” sound during the next breath of air
When to see a doctor
Call your doctor if prolonged coughing spells cause you or your child to:
- Turn red or blue
- Seem to be struggling to breathe or have noticeable pauses in breathing
- Inhale with a whooping sound
Whooping cough is caused by bacteria. When an infected person coughs or sneezes, tiny germ-laden droplets are sprayed into the air and breathed into the lungs of anyone who happens to be nearby.
Whooping cough is thought to be on the rise for two main reasons. The whooping cough vaccine you receive as a child eventually wears off. This leaves most teenagers and adults susceptible to the infection during an outbreak — and there continue to be regular outbreaks.
In addition, children aren’t fully immune to whooping cough until they’ve received at least three shots, leaving those 6 months and younger at greatest risk of contracting the infection.
Teens and adults often recover from whooping cough with no problems. When complications occur, they tend to be side effects of the strenuous coughing, such as:
- Bruised or cracked ribs
- Abdominal hernias
- Broken blood vessels in the skin or the whites of your eyes
In infants — especially those under 6 months of age — complications from whooping cough are more severe and may include:
- Slowed or stopped breathing
- Dehydration or weight loss due to feeding difficulties
- Brain damage
Because infants and toddlers are at greatest risk of complications from whooping cough, they’re more likely to need treatment in a hospital. Complications can be life-threatening for infants younger than 6 months old.
Tests and diagnosis
Diagnosing whooping cough in its early stages can be difficult because the signs and symptoms resemble those of other common respiratory illnesses, such as a cold, the flu or bronchitis.
Sometimes, doctors can diagnose whooping cough simply by asking about symptoms and listening to the cough. Medical tests may be needed to confirm the diagnosis. Such tests may include:
- A nose or throat culture and test.
- Blood tests.
- A chest X-ray.
Treatments and drugs
Infants are typically hospitalized for treatment because whooping cough is more dangerous for that age group. If your child can’t keep down liquids or food, intravenous fluids may be necessary. Your child will also be isolated from others to prevent the infection from spreading.
Treatment for older children and adults usually can be managed at home.
Antibiotics kill the bacteria causing whooping cough and help speed recovery. Family members may be given preventive antibiotics.
Unfortunately, not much is available to relieve the cough. Over-the-counter cough medicines, for instance, have little effect on whooping cough and are discouraged.
Lifestyle and home remedies
The following tips on dealing with coughing spells apply to anyone being treated for whooping cough at home:
- Get plenty of rest.
- Drink plenty of fluids.
- Eat smaller meals.
- Clean the air.
- Prevent transmission.
The best way to prevent whooping cough is with the pertussis vaccine, which doctors often give in combination with vaccines against two other serious diseases — diphtheria and tetanus. Doctors recommend beginning vaccination during infancy.
The vaccine consists of a series of five injections, typically given to children at these ages:
- 2 months
- 4 months
- 6 months
- 15 to 18 months
- 4 to 6 years
Vaccine side effects
Side effects of the vaccine are usually mild and may include fever, crankiness, headache, fatigue or soreness at the site of the injection.
- Because immunity from the pertussis vaccine tends to wane by age 11, doctors recommend a booster shot at that age to protect against whooping cough (pertussis), diphtheria and tetanus.
- Some varieties of the every-10-year tetanus and diphtheria vaccine also include protection against whooping cough (pertussis). This vaccine will also reduce the risk of your transmitting whooping cough to infants.
- Pregnant women. Health experts now recommend that pregnant women receive the pertussis vaccine between 27 and 36 weeks of gestation. This may also give some protection to the infant during the first few months of life.