Top of the page
Whooping cough (pertussis) is a disease that causes very severe coughing that may last for months. During bursts of violent coughing, you may make a noise that sounds like a "whoop" when you try to take a breath. You can cough so hard that you hurt a rib.
Whooping cough spreads easily from one person to another. Getting the pertussis vaccine can help you avoid the disease, make it less severe, and prevent you from spreading it to those who are at risk for more serious problems.
With good care, most people recover from whooping cough with no problems. But severe coughing spells can decrease the blood's oxygen supply and lead to other problems, such as pneumonia. The illness can be dangerous in older adults and young children, especially babies who aren't old enough to have had the pertussis vaccine.
Whooping cough is caused by bacteria that infect the top of the throat (pharynx). The bacteria bother the throat, which causes coughing.
When someone with whooping cough coughs, sneezes, or laughs, tiny drops of fluid holding the bacteria are put into the air. The bacteria can infect others when people breathe in the drops or get them on their hands and touch their mouth or nose. After the bacteria infect someone, symptoms appear about 7 to 14 days later.
Symptoms of whooping cough may occur in three stages, especially in young children. Adults and older children may not follow this pattern of symptoms.
In stage 1, symptoms are like those of a cold:
In stage 2, the cold symptoms get better, but the cough gets worse.
In stage 3, you still have symptoms, but you feel better and grow stronger.
Adults and older children usually have milder symptoms than young children. How bad your symptoms are also depends on whether you've had the vaccine and how long ago it was.
Symptoms of whooping cough usually last 6 to 10 weeks, but they may last longer.
Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms and do a physical examination. To rule out other health problems, he or she may order tests such as a chest X-ray or blood tests.
It can sometimes be hard to diagnose whooping cough, because you may seem healthy between coughing episodes. Your doctor may take a sample of mucus from your nose and have it tested for the bacteria that cause whooping cough.
Whooping cough is usually treated with antibiotics. These medicines make it less likely that you will spread the disease. Also, if you start taking the antibiotics when you first get whooping cough, the disease may not last as long. Family members and other close contacts may be prescribed antibiotics before they have any symptoms.
Babies, especially those younger than 4 months, usually are treated in the hospital. This allows the doctor to see how well the baby deals with and recovers from coughing spells. It also makes it easier for the baby to get extra oxygen and other care if needed.
To avoid spreading the illnessfootnote 1
If your child has whooping cough:
Many of these same tips will help if you're an adult with whooping cough. Make sure you get enough fluids, avoid triggers like smoke and dust, and consider using a humidifier.
Over-the-counter medicines, such as cough syrups and antihistamines, don't help with whooping cough.
Making sure that you and your children are immunized against whooping cough is the best way to prevent it. Starting at age 2 months, children need a series of shots (called DTaP) to protect against whooping cough. A booster shot (called Tdap) is recommended at about age 14 and for all teens and adults who never had a Tdap shot.
Because whooping cough symptoms can be mild in adults, you may not know that you have the illness. Without a Tdap shot, if you have whooping cough, you can spread whooping cough to a young infant or another person who isn't protected and for whom the disease is much more dangerous.
You can get whooping cough more than one time, and you may get it years apart. But you will be less likely to get it again if you get the shots as recommended.
Washing your hands often and staying away from people who have a bad cough may also help you avoid getting the disease.
CitationsAmerican Academy of Pediatrics (2015). Pertussis (whooping cough). In DW Kimberlin et al., eds., Red Book: 2015 Report of the Committee on Infectious Diseases, 30th ed., pp. 606–621. Elk Grove Village, IL: America Academy of Pediatrics.
Current as of: February 9, 2022
Author: Healthwise StaffMedical Review: John Pope MD - PediatricsKathleen Romito MD - Family MedicineAdam Husney MD - Family MedicineChristine Hahn MD - Epidemiology
Current as of: February 9, 2022
Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:John Pope MD - Pediatrics & Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine & Adam Husney MD - Family Medicine & Christine Hahn MD - Epidemiology
To learn more about Healthwise, visit Healthwise.org.
© 1995-2022 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.