Whooping cough, also called pertussis, 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 9,000 deaths per year in the United States, according to KidsHealth. Whooping cough is now responsible for fewer than 30 deaths each year in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The CDC says the total number of cases of pertussis in 2014 was just under 33,000.
The incubation period (time between initial infection and the onset of symptoms) for whooping cough is about five to 10 days, but symptoms might not appear for as long as three weeks, according to the CDC. 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:
- blue or purple skin around the mouth
- low-grade fever
- breathing difficulties
Adults and teenagers typically experience milder symptoms, such as a prolonged cough without the “whoop” sound.
Diagnosis and Treatment
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 mucus 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.
Many infants and some young children will need to be hospitalized during treatment, for observation and respiratory support. 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.
Infants with whooping cough require close monitoring to avoid potentially dangerous complications due to lack of oxygen. Serious complications include:
- brain damage
- bleeding in the brain
- apnea (slowed or stopped breathing)
- convulsions (uncontrollable, rapid shaking)
If your infant experiences symptoms of infection, call your doctor immediately.
Older children and adults can experience complications as well, including:
- difficulty sleeping
- urinary incontinence (loss of bladder control)
- rib fracture
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.
Vaccination is the key to prevention. The CDC recommends vaccination for infants at:
- 2 months
- 4 months
- 6 months
Booster shots are needed for children at:
- 15 to 18 months
- 4 to 6 years and again at 11 years old
Children aren’t the only ones vulnerable to whooping cough. If you work with, visit, or care for infants and children, are over the age of 65, or work in the healthcare industry, talk to your doctor about getting vaccinated.