What is whooping cough?


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.

“Before the vaccine was developed, whooping cough was considered a childhood disease. Now whooping cough primarily affects children too young to have completed the full course of vaccinations and teenagers and adults whose immunity has faded.

Deaths associated with whooping cough are rare but most commonly occur in infants. That’s why it’s so important for pregnant women — and other people who will have close contact with an infant — to be vaccinated against whooping cough.

What is whooping cough?

Whooping cough is a bacterial infection caused by Bordetella pertussis. It spreads when an infected person coughs or sneezes and you breathe it in.

The bacteria affect the lungs and airways, causing a person to cough violently and uncontrollably. This can make it hard for the infected person to breathe.

Whooping cough is a serious disease because it can lead to pneumonia, brain damage and sometimes death.


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.

However, many people don’t develop the characteristic whoop. Sometimes, a persistent hacking cough is the only sign that an adolescent or adult has whooping cough.

Infants may not cough at all. Instead, they may struggle to breathe, or they may even temporarily stop breathing.The cough gets worse and often happens at night. It might stop you from sleeping. Coughing attacks can be very violent, and some people vomit or faint after coughing. Some people with whooping cough can cough so hard they break their ribs.

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.

Causes.Whooping cough is caused by a type of bacteria called Bordetella pertussis. 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.

Risk factors.

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.

Infants who are younger than age 12 months who are unvaccinated or haven’t received the full set of recommended vaccines have the highest risk for severe complications and death.


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.


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.

How is whooping cough diagnosed?

Your health care provider may use many tools to diagnose whooping cough:

▪️A medical history, which includes asking about your symptoms.

▪️A physical exam.

▪️A lab test which involves taking a sample of mucus from the back of the throat through the nose. This may be done with a swab or syringe filled with saline. The sample is tested for the bacteria that causes whooping cough.

▪️Blood test.

▪️Chest x-ray.

What are the treatments for whooping cough?

The treatment for whooping cough is usually antibiotics. Early treatment is very important. It may make your infection less serious and can also help prevent spreading the disease to others.

Treatment after you have been sick for 3 weeks or longer may not help. The bacteria are gone from your body by then, even though you usually still have symptoms. This is because the bacteria have already done damage to your body.Whooping cough can sometimes be very serious and require treatment in the hospital.

Can whooping cough be prevented?

Vaccines are the best way to prevent whooping cough. There are two vaccines in the United States that can help prevent whooping cough:

DTaP and Tdap. These vaccines also provide protection against tetanus and diphtheria.

Babies and other people at high risk serious disease should be kept away from people who have whooping cough.

Sometimes health care providers give antibiotics to family members of people who have had whooping cough or people who have been exposed to it. The antibiotics may prevent them from getting the disease.

You may also help prevent the spread of whooping cough (and other respiratory diseases) by:

▪️Washing your hands often with soap and water. You can use an alcohol-based hand rub if soap and water are not available.

▪️Avoiding touching your face with unwashed hands.

▪️Cleaning and disinfecting surfaces that you frequently touch, including toys.

▪️Covering coughs and sneezes with a tissue or upper shirt sleeve, not hands.

▪️Staying home when sick.

▪️Avoiding close contact with people who are sick.


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