Whooping Cough (Pertussis)

Written by Kristeen Moore | Published on July 13, 2012
Medically Reviewed by George Krucik, MD

Whooping Cough

Whooping cough is a serious respiratory infection caused by a type of bacteria called Bordetella pertussis. The infection causes violent, uncontrollable coughing that can make it difficult to breathe. While whooping cough can affect people at any age, it can be deadly for infants and young children.

Before a vaccine was available, whooping cough caused approximately 10,000 deaths per year in the U.S. According to KidsHealth, whooping cough is now responsible for fewer than 30 deaths each year. (KidsHealth). Don’t let your guard down – there are still one million new cases reported in adults and adolescents each year. (American Academy of Pediatrics)

Whooping Cough Symptoms

The incubation period (time between initial infection and the onset of symptoms) for whooping cough is seven to 10 days. (Kids Health) Early symptoms mimic the common cold and include a runny nose, cough, and fever. Within two weeks, a dry and persistent cough develops that makes breathing very difficult. Infants and children often make a “whoop” sound when they try to take a breath after coughing spells.

This type of severe cough can also cause:

  • vomiting
  • blue or purple skin around the mouth
  • dehydration
  • low-grade fever
  • breathing difficulties

Adults and teenagers typically experience milder symptoms, such as a prolonged cough without the “whoop” sound.

Diagnosing and Treating Whooping Cough

If you or your child experience symptoms of whooping cough, seek medical attention right away, especially if members of your family have not been immunized. Whooping cough is highly contagious – bacteria can become airborne when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or laughs, and can quickly spread to others.


To diagnose whooping cough your doctor will perform a physical exam and take samples of mucous in the nose and throat. These samples will then be tested for the presence of the b. pertussis bacteria. A blood test may also be necessary to make an accurate diagnosis.


Most infants and young children will need to be hospitalized during treatment to minimize their risk of developing pneumonia (infection of the lungs). Some may require intravenous (IV) fluids for dehydration if symptoms prevent them from drinking enough fluids. Since whooping cough is a bacterial infection, antibiotics are the primary course of treatment. Antibiotics are most effective in the early stages of whooping cough; however they can also be used in the late stages of the infection to prevent it from spreading to others. While antibiotics can help treat the infection, they do not prevent or treat the cough itself. Cough medicines are not recommended – they have no effect on whooping cough symptoms and may carry harmful side effects for infants and small children.

Most doctors suggest using humidifiers in your child’s bedroom to keep air moist and help alleviate symptoms of whooping cough.

Possible Complications

Older children and adults recover quickly, but infants with whooping cough require close monitoring to avoid potentially dangerous complications due to lack of oxygen. Serious complications include:

  • brain damage
  • pneumonia
  • seizures
  • bleeding in the brain
  • apnea (slowed or stopped bleeding)
  • convulsions
  • death

If your infant experiences symptoms of infection, call your doctor immediately.

Long-Term Outlook

Symptoms of whooping cough can last up to four weeks or longer, even during treatment. Children and adults generally recover quickly with early medical intervention. Infants are at the highest risk of whooping cough related deaths, even after starting treatment. Parents should monitor infants carefully. If symptoms persist or get worse, contact your doctor right away.

Whooping Cough Prevention

Vaccination is the key to prevention. The Center for Disease Control recommends vaccination for infants at:

  • two months
  • four months
  • six months

Booster shots are needed for children at:

  • 12-15 months
  • four to six years

Children aren’t the only ones vulnerable to whooping cough. If you work with infants and children, are over the age of 65, or work in the healthcare industry, talk to your doctor about getting vaccinated.

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