Whooping Cough

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS

What is whooping cough?

Whooping cough is a highly contagious disease caused by a bacterial infection of the respiratory tract. Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, is caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis. The hallmark symptoms of whooping cough are violent coughing fits followed by a whooping sound made as a person gasps for air.

Whooping cough is highly preventable through vaccination. In the early 20th century, whooping cough was a leading cause of illness and death in infants and children, but it declined dramatically after the invention of the whooping cough vaccine. Recently, however, the incidences of whooping cough have been on the rise in the United States (Source: CDC Trusted Source Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Governmental authority Go to source ).

Whooping cough can be serious and result in life-threatening complications, such as permanent lung and brain damage, especially in infants less than six months of age.

Seek prompt medical care if you, or your infant, have been exposed to whooping cough, experience a cough that does not go away, or have violent episodes of coughing.

What are the symptoms of whooping cough?

The symptoms of whooping cough typically begin seven to 10 days after becoming infected with the bacteria that cause whooping cough, although the incubation period can last several weeks. This means that you can be infected with the bacteria that cause whooping cough, Bordetella pertussis, and not develop symptoms for several weeks. An infected person is most contagious during the early stages of disease and after the onset of cough.

Early symptoms of whooping cough may be mild and include:

Within a few days to a week, the symptoms of whooping cough become worse:

  • Coughing that produces thick phlegm

  • Fatigue

  • Reddened face that can become blue (cyanotic) during coughing fits due to a lack of oxygen in the body

  • Severe coughing episodes followed by a characteristic whooping sound made when gasping for air. The whooping sound is particularly evident in young children.

  • Severe coughing episodes that can last up to one minute

  • Vomiting following an episode of coughing

What causes whooping cough?

Whooping cough is caused by an infection of the respiratory tract by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis. Whooping cough spreads from person to person when someone with the disease coughs, talks, or sneezes. This shoots droplets contaminated with B. pertussis bacteria into the air where they can be inhaled by others. Whooping cough, or pertussis, is a highly contagious disease. An infected person is most contagious during the early stages of disease and after the onset of cough.

What are the risk factors for contracting whooping cough?

Whooping cough can occur in any age group or population. A number of factors increase the risk of contracting whooping cough, although not all people with risk factors will develop the disease.

Risk groups and risk factors for whooping cough include:

  • Adolescents and older adults whose vaccination has becomes less effective over time

  • Asthmatics

  • Close exposure to infected infants and young children, such as working in a day care center or hospital

  • Immunocompromised health status

  • Infants younger than six months of age

  • Not being fully vaccinated for whooping cough with the pertussis vaccine

  • Pregnancy

  • Premature birth

  • Smokers

Reducing your risk of whooping cough

You can lower your risk of developing or spreading whooping cough by:

  • Avoiding contact with a person who has whooping cough

  • Covering your mouth and nose with your elbow (not the hand) or a tissue when sneezing or coughing

  • Getting vaccinated for whooping cough or revaccinated 10 years later

  • Washing hands frequently with soap and water for at least 15 seconds

How is a whooping cough treated?

Treatment of whooping cough is most effective when started early in the disease process, preferably before the onset of any violent coughing attacks. Treatment of whooping cough includes:

  • Antibiotic medications to clear the bacteria from the body

  • Cool-mist vaporizer to moisten the airways

  • Drinking plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration

  • Hospitalization for infants with whooping cough. Older children and adults may also require hospitalization, depending on the severity of the case and their general health, and if complications have developed.

  • Intravenous administration of fluids to prevent or treat dehydration, especially in infants.

  • Rest to help your body recover during the course of illness

  • Supplemental oxygen may be needed to treat hypoxia, a lack of oxygen in the body’s tissues.

  • Thick phlegm may need to be medically suctioned from the airways.

What are the possible complications of whooping cough?

Some complications of whooping cough can develop because of the violent coughing episodes. They can include:

    In some people, especially infants and younger children, complications of whooping cough can be severe, even life threatening.  Complications can include:

    You can help minimize your risk of serious complications by following the treatment plan you and your health care professional design specifically for you (or your child).

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    1. Pertussis (Whooping Cough) Surveillance and Reporting. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/pertussis/surv-reporting.html#trends
    2. Pertussis (Whooping Cough) Signs and Symptoms. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. http://www.cdc.gov/pertussis/about/signs-symptoms.html
    3. Pertussis. PubMed Health, a service of the NLM from the NIH. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0002528/
    4. Feigin RD, Cherry JD, Demmler-Harrison GJ, Kaplan SL (Eds), Textbook of Pediatric Infectious Diseases, 6th ed. Philadelphia: Saunders, 2009.
    5. Bope ET, Kellerman RD (Eds.) Conn’s Current Therapy. Philadelphia: Saunders, 2013.
    6. Domino FJ (Ed.) Five Minute Clinical Consult. Philadelphia: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, 2013.
    7. Bettiol S, Thompson MJ, Roberts NW, et al. Symptomatic treatment of the cough in whooping cough. Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2010; :CD003257.
    Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
    Last Review Date: 2021 Jan 20
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    THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.