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Whooping Cough (Pertussis) in Children: Care Instructions

Your Care Instructions

Whooping cough is a disease that causes very severe coughing. Your child may be sneezing and have a runny nose and fever. What makes this illness different from other childhood illnesses with these symptoms is that the cough gets worse. In whooping cough, the other symptoms go away, but the cough becomes worse.

Whooping cough is also called pertussis. People of any age can get it, but it can be very hard on babies in their first year.

Your child may have a cough for weeks or even months. A coughing spell may last for a minute or more. It can be frightening to watch your child cough and try to breathe. In between coughing spells, your child may be very tired.

The doctor may give your child antibiotics to control the spread of the bacteria. This may shorten the time your child is sick. If your child is younger than 4 months or seems to have trouble breathing, the doctor may recommend a hospital stay. This will help your child get enough oxygen, fluids, and nutrients.

This disease can spread quickly from person to person. Other family members may need to be immunized. Babies who do not get the vaccine may catch whooping cough from adult caregivers who don't know that they have it. You can help prevent or decrease the severity of whooping cough by keeping your family's immunizations up to date.

Follow-up care is a key part of your child's treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse advice line (811 in most provinces and territories) if your child is having problems. It's also a good idea to know your child's test results and keep a list of the medicines your child takes.

How can you care for your child at home?

  • Be safe with medicines. Have your child take medicines exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor if you think your child is having a problem with his or her medicine. You will get more details on the specific medicines your doctor prescribes.
  • If the doctor prescribed antibiotics for your child, give them as directed. Do not stop using them just because your child feels better. Your child needs to take the full course of antibiotics.
  • Be careful with cough and cold medicines. Don't give them to children younger than 6, because they don't work for children that age and can even be harmful. For children 6 and older, always follow all the instructions carefully. Make sure you know how much medicine to give and how long to use it. And use the dosing device if one is included.
  • Keep your home and especially your child's room quiet and calm. This will help your child rest and cut down on coughing spells.
  • Keep smoke and dust away from your home and your child.
  • Try to shield your child from sudden noises or lights or changes in temperature.
  • Give your child frequent, small sips of fluids and healthy foods.
  • Keep your child away from other children while he or she is ill.
  • Place a humidifier by your child's bed or close to your child. This may make it easier for your child to breathe. Follow the directions for cleaning the machine. But watch closely to see its effect, because humidity sometimes makes coughing spells worse. If that happens, don't use the humidifier.
  • All family members and visitors should wash their hands often to help prevent the spread of infection.
  • Keep your children away from people who have a severe cough.

When should you call for help?

Call 911 anytime you think your child may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • Your child stops breathing, turns blue, or becomes unconscious. Follow instructions given by emergency services while you wait for help.
  • Your child has severe trouble breathing. Signs may include the chest sinking in, using belly muscles to breathe, or nostrils flaring while your child is struggling to breathe.

Call your doctor or nurse advice line now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • Your child is vomiting and cannot keep down fluids.
  • Your child has more trouble breathing or is breathing faster.
  • Your child is too tired to eat or drink.
  • Your child's face, hands, and feet look slightly grey or purple.

Watch closely for changes in your child's health, and be sure to contact your doctor if:

  • Your child is not getting better.

Where can you learn more?

Go to

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Care instructions adapted under license by your healthcare professional. If you have questions about a medical condition or this instruction, always ask your healthcare professional. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information.