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Whooping Cough (Pertussis)

Condition Basics

What is whooping cough?

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.

What causes it?

Whooping cough is caused by bacteria that infect the top of the throat (pharynx). The bacteria irritate 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 usually appear about 5 to 10 days later. Sometimes it may be up to 3 weeks before symptoms appear.

What are the symptoms?

Early symptoms of whooping cough are similar to a common cold and can last for 1 to 2 weeks. Symptoms may include:

  • A runny nose.
  • A fever.
  • A mild cough.
  • Apnea in babies. This is a slight pause in breathing.

Later-stage symptoms happen after 1 or 2 weeks and can last for 10 weeks or more. Symptoms include:

  • Spells of coughing that are rapid and are followed by a "whoop" sound.
  • Vomiting during or after coughing fits.
  • Exhaustion after coughing fits.

Recovery from whooping cough can happen slowly. The cough becomes milder and happens less often. Coughing fits can still happen with other respiratory infections.

How is it diagnosed?

Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms and do a physical exam. They may take a sample of mucus from your nose to have it tested for the bacteria that cause whooping cough. You may also have blood tests. A chest X-ray may be done to check for other health problems.

How is whooping cough treated?

Whooping cough is often treated with antibiotics. These medicines make it less likely that you will spread the disease. If you start taking 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 so they don't get sick.

Babies are often treated in the hospital. This allows the doctor to see how well the baby copes with and recovers from coughing spells. It also makes it easier for the baby to get extra care, such as help with breathing.

How can you care for yourself at home?

  • Take your antibiotics as directed. Do not stop taking them just because you feel better. You need to take the full course of antibiotics.
  • Stay away from possible triggers of coughing, such as smoke, dust, sudden noises or lights, and changes in temperature.
  • Have frequent, small sips of fluids and nutritious foods.
  • Create a calm, quiet, restful place for yourself.
  • Lie on your side or stomach instead of your back.


Current as of: June 13, 2023

Author: Healthwise Staff
Clinical Review Board
All Healthwise education is reviewed by a team that includes physicians, nurses, advanced practitioners, registered dieticians, and other healthcare professionals.

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