Whooping cough is also known as pertussis. It’s a highly contagious respiratory illness.

Whooping cough can cause uncontrollable coughing fits and make it hard to breathe. In some cases, it leads to potentially life threatening complications.

The best way to prevent whooping cough is to get vaccinated against the disease. Taking steps to limit your exposure to the bacteria that causes whooping cough is also important.

Read on to learn more about the risks of whooping cough and how you can protect yourself.

Whooping cough is caused by a type of bacteria known as Bordetella pertussis.

When these bacteria enter the respiratory system, they release toxic chemicals that damage the body’s airways and cause them to swell.

When someone first contracts the bacteria, whooping cough often resembles the common cold. In its early stages, it may cause symptoms such as:

  • mild cough
  • runny nose
  • changes in breathing patterns
  • low-grade fever

After 1 to 2 weeks of infection, whooping cough often causes more severe fits of coughing. These coughing fits may be followed by a “whoop” sound, as you try to catch your breath.

The coughing fits may become more frequent and severe as the disease progresses. They may persist for up to 10 weeks or longer.

When whooping cough develops in babies, it may not cause much coughing. However, it can make it very hard for them to breathe. Their skin and lips may develop a blue tinge from lack of oxygen.

Whooping cough can cause potentially serious complications, such as:

  • bruised or fractured ribs from coughing
  • passing out from coughing
  • lung infection, known as pneumonia
  • slowed or stopped breathing

Whooping cough can affect people at any age, but it tends to be more severe in infants.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), roughly half of babies under the age of 1 who develop whooping cough have to be treated in the hospital.

Although death from whooping cough is rare, it can occur.

Getting vaccinated against whooping cough is the most effective way to prevent it. It will significantly lower your chances of developing the disease.

Vaccines help protect not only you but also those around you — including infants who are at risk of severe infection.

There are two vaccines in the United States that help prevent whooping cough:

  • DTaP vaccine: recommended for infants and children under 7 years old
  • Tdap vaccine: recommended for older children and adults

These vaccines also help protect against diphtheria and tetanus.

The effects of the vaccines don’t last forever, so you’ll need to get more than one dose of the vaccines throughout your life to protect against these diseases.

It’s also important to note that getting vaccinated doesn’t provide an absolute guarantee that you won’t develop whooping cough. However, it dramatically lowers your chances.

If you do get whooping cough despite being vaccinated, it’s likely that your symptoms will be much milder than if you hadn’t been vaccinated.

Talk to your doctor to learn when infants, children, and adults should receive the vaccine.

Whooping cough can be easily passed from someone who has the disease on to someone else.

If you’re in close contact with someone who has whooping cough, you may breathe in droplets of their saliva or mucus when they cough or sneeze. Those droplets may also land on your eyes, nose, or mouth. This can cause you to contract the infection.

You can also contract the infection if you get small amounts of saliva or mucus with the bacteria on your hands and then touch your eyes, nose, or mouth.

If you know someone who has whooping cough, staying physically distant and limiting in-person contact with them can help lower your chances of getting the infection.

You’re at much lower risk for whooping cough if you’ve been vaccinated. However, the vaccine for whooping cough isn’t as effective as some other vaccines, and it’s still possible to contract it.

Those with whooping cough can also help stop the spread by covering their nose and mouth with a tissue, sleeve, or their elbow when coughing or sneezing.

Proper hand hygiene is also very important, including handwashing.

If you’re spending time around someone who has whooping cough or another contagious illness, good hand hygiene is essential.

Try to wash your hands frequently, including:

  • after you spend time with someone who has signs or symptoms of a respiratory illness
  • after you touch any tissues or other items used by someone with a respiratory illness
  • before you touch your eyes, nose, or mouth
  • before you prepare or eat any food

It’s best to wash your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds each time. A simple way to estimate 20 seconds is to sing “Happy Birthday” in your head twice.

If soap and water aren’t available, use an alcohol-based hand cleanser instead.

If you think you might have whooping cough, make an appointment with your doctor.

To diagnose the condition, your doctor may ask you about your signs and symptoms, physically examine you, and collect samples of your mucus or blood for testing.

To treat whooping cough, your doctor may prescribe antibiotic medications. They may also prescribe preventive antibiotics to other members of your household to help protect them.

Early treatment with antibiotics may help reduce the severity of the infection. It may also help stop the disease from spreading to other people.

The earlier you get treatment, the better.

Whooping cough can cause uncomfortable symptoms, as well as potentially serious complications. It tends to be particularly dangerous for young infants.

To help protect yourself and others, it’s important to stay up to date on your vaccinations, limit contact with people who are sick with respiratory symptoms, and practice good hand hygiene.

If you think you or another member of your household might have whooping cough, contact your doctor right away. Early treatment may help limit the severity and spread of the disease.