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Having a sick child is scary — especially if they’re making odd noises that sound like barking, whooping, or like they’re gasping for air.

Croup and whooping cough (pertussis) are two illnesses that can occur in babies, toddlers, children, and adults. There are similarities between the two conditions — and very specific differences, as well.

In this article, we’ll compare croup to whooping cough and outline everything you need to know about both, including prevention, treatment, and outlook.

CroupWhooping cough
Causesparainfluenza virusbacterial infection
Sound of coughbarking; harsh, grating soundwhooping, gasping sound
Symptomslow-grade fever; swelling and inflammation in the vocal cords, windpipe, and bronchi; coughing; trouble breathing; barking cough; hoarsenesslow-grade fever; mild coughing; runny nose; severe coughing accompanied by a whooping sound after 1 to 2 weeks; struggled breathing; blue lips; vomiting and gagging
Duration/contagionbetween less than one week and 10 days; typically contagious only when a child is running a fever, usually for 3 daysup to 100 days; contagious for 5 days after antibiotics have are started, and contagious for 2 weeks or longer after cough has started if no antibiotics are used
Treatmentdexamethasone, nebulized epinephrineantibiotics
Outlookusually mild and resolves at home, often without medicationcan be serious in small babies; possible complications include pneumonia, brain damage, seizure, and death if untreated

Croup is a viral respiratory infection that affects children. It’s most common in kids under 5 years of age but can occur in older children. Croup is rare in adults, but may be more serious when it occurs in this age group.

Croup is short-lived, typically resolving within 3 to 10 days.

Cause and spread

Croup is usually caused by the parainfluenza virus. As with all parainfluenza viruses, there’s no vaccine that prevents it. Croup may also be caused by acid reflux or allergies.

Croup is airborne and transmitted through microscopic droplets that are released when a person coughs or sneezes. It can also be contracted by touching contaminated surfaces.

Croup is contagious and can be contracted at any time of year. However, it’s most prevalent during winter and spring months.


Croup is defined in part by a barking cough. Children with croup may also make a harsh, grating sound (stridor). Stridor and a low-grade fever are also common symptoms.

Croup starts out with symptoms that resemble a common cold, including low-grade fever. Swelling and inflammation in the vocal cords, windpipe, and bronchi cause coughing, trouble breathing, and hoarseness.


Unlike whooping cough, croup typically resolves with mild medical support at home.

Breathing in humidified, moist air, and drinking plenty of fluids will help thin mucus secretions and make your child feel more comfortable. Sleeping with the head elevated may also help alleviate coughing at night.

Your child’s pediatrician may prescribe steroids that reduce tracheal inflammation. If your child is having trouble breathing, the doctor can also administer nebulized epinephrine.

Whooping cough is a serious condition that can affect anyone of any age, including teens, adults, and the elderly. In babies, it may cause pneumonia, seizures, permanent disability due to brain damage, or death if left untreated.

This condition may linger, causing a nagging cough to continue for 100 days or longer.

Cause and spread

Whooping cough is an upper respiratory infection caused by the Bordetella pertussis bacterium.

Whooping cough is airborne and highly contagious. It’s spread by microscopic droplets in the air that are released while coughing and sneezing. It can also be spread by touching contaminated surfaces.


Whooping cough starts out like a common cold. Its symptoms may include low-grade fever, mild coughing, a runny nose, and diarrhea.

As whooping cough progresses, coughing becomes more severe. Fits of coughing that include a whooping, gasping sound can happen when a child gasps for air after uncontrollable, violent coughing.

Gagging and vomiting, caused by excessive amounts of mucus, may occur. Gasping for air and a whooping sound may accompany coughing, although this classic symptom isn’t always apparent in babies.

If your child struggles for breath, cyanosis (bluing of the skin) may occur.


Antibiotics can help reduce symptom severity as well as the duration of whooping cough. It’s contagious for 5 days after antibiotics have been started.

Whooping cough can be contagious for 2 weeks or longer after a cough has started, if no antibiotics are given.

Here’s are the best prevention strategies for croup and whooping cough.


There is no vaccine that protects against croup. Your best defense against this and other viral illnesses is good hygiene that includes frequent hand washing and covering your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze.

Whooping cough

There are two vaccines used against whooping cough:

  • The DTaP vaccine is used in babies and in children under 7 years old.
  • The Tdap vaccine is used in preteens, teenagers, and adults. Pregnant women can also get the Tdap vaccine. This protects their newborns, who won’t receive the DTaP vaccine until they’re 2 months old.

For newly-inoculated babies, booster shots will be given on this schedule:

  • 2 months old
  • 4 months old
  • 6 months old
  • sometime between 15 and 18 months old
  • sometime between 4 and 6 years old

The DTaP vaccine provides protection for up to 10 years. Preteens and teens should receive a booster shot (Tdap), starting at around 11 years of age.

Adults who were never inoculated can receive the Tdap at any time. Pregnant women should receive a Tdap during the third trimester.

Croup and whooping cough are respiratory illnesses that may occur in people of any age. Croup is uncommon in adults but may be more serious when it affects this age group.

Croup is caused by a virus. There’s no vaccine against croup. This condition usually resolves at home, in less than 10 days.

Whooping cough is caused by a bacterial infection. It can be dangerous and may even cause death in small babies. There’s a vaccine available that protects people of all ages from whooping cough.