Whooping cough (pertussis) is a respiratory tract infection that’s caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis. While teens and adults often recover from whooping cough without many problems, infants and young children can experience serious and potentially life-threatening complications.

Whooping cough is highly contagious. In fact, one person with whooping cough can potentially infect 12 to 15 other people!

Read on to learn more about whooping cough, how it’s transmitted, and how it can be prevented.

The bacteria that cause whooping cough can be found in the secretions of an infected person’s nose and mouth. These bacteria can spread to other people through tiny droplets generated when that person coughs or sneezes. If you’re nearby and inhale these droplets, you may also get the infection.

Additionally, you can get these droplets on your hands from touching contaminated surfaces, such as doorknobs and faucet handles. If you come into contact with a contaminated surface and then touch your face, nose, or mouth, you may also become infected.

Many infants and young children can get whooping cough from older individuals, such as parents or older siblings, who may have whooping cough without knowing it.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), whooping cough doesn’t have a specific seasonal pattern, but cases may increase in the summer and fall months.

The symptoms of whooping cough typically develop within 5 to 10 days after you’ve been exposed to the bacterium. However, it’s important to note that symptoms can take as long as three weeks to appear in some cases.

The illness is divided into three stages:

  • First (catarrhal) stage. This stage lasts for one to two weeks and involves symptoms similar to the common cold.
  • Second (paroxysmal) stage. This stage can last between one and six weeks and involves uncontrollable coughing fits followed by a long, deep breath that give the condition its name.
  • Third (convalescent) stage. This gradual recovery stage can last anywhere from weeks to months.

Whooping cough is most contagious in the early stages of infection. People with whooping cough can spread the disease beginning from when they first experience symptoms up until at least the first two weeks that they’ve been coughing.

If you’ve been taking antibiotics for five full days, you can no longer spread whooping cough to others.

Infants are at the highest risk of being diagnosed with whooping cough as well as developing serious complications from the infection. Possible complications from whooping cough in infants include:

  • dehydration and weight loss
  • pneumonia
  • slowed or stopped breathing
  • seizures
  • brain damage

The first vaccination against whooping cough isn’t received until 2 months of age. Infants are vulnerable to infection during this time, and they remain vulnerable for up to six months. This is because infants still have lower immunity against pertussis until they receive their third booster at 6 months.

Due to this vulnerability, the CDC recommends that all pregnant women receive a booster vaccination in the third trimester of each pregnancy. Antibodies built up by the mother can be transferred to the newborn, providing some protection in the period prior to vaccination.

Additionally, since older family members can often spread whooping cough to infants, everyone around the baby should receive a booster vaccination as well. This includes siblings, grandparents, and caregivers.

Teens and adults can still get whooping cough, particularly if there’s an outbreak occurring in the area. Disease severity can range anywhere from asymptomatic to classic disease presentation with persistent cough.

Although disease severity in teens and adults is often more mild, they can still experience complications due to persistent coughing, including:

  • broken blood vessels, particularly in the eyes or the skin
  • bruised or cracked ribs
  • pneumonia

Although the vaccines for whooping cough — DTaP and Tdap — are effective, the protection they provide decreases over time. Because of this, you can still get whooping cough even if you’ve been vaccinated.

However, the disease can be less serious in people who have been vaccinated. Additionally, children who’ve been vaccinated and later come down with whooping cough are less likely to experience more severe symptoms, such as vomiting and pauses in breathing (apnea).

Vaccine and booster schedule

The DTaP vaccine is given to infants and young children. It comes in five doses, which are given at the following ages:

  • 2 months
  • 4 months
  • 6 months
  • 15 to 18 months
  • 4 to 6 years

The Tdap vaccine is given to preteens, teens, and adults as a booster. It’s recommended for the following people:

  • individuals age 11 and older who have not yet received a Tdap booster
  • pregnant women in the third trimester of their pregnancy
  • preteens at 11- to 12-years old (routine booster)
  • people who will often be around children younger than one year old, including healthcare workers and family members of infants

What happens if you or your child has been exposed to whooping cough? For example, what do you do if you receive a letter from your child’s school saying that their whole class may have been exposed?

If you believe that you or your child has been exposed to whooping cough, contact your doctor. They may recommend a course of antibiotics to protect against or lessen the symptoms of an infection.

The first symptoms of whooping cough are similar to those of the common cold and typically include:

  • runny nose
  • sneezing
  • occasional coughing
  • low-grade fever

These symptoms gradually worsen over a week or two and coughing spells develop. These coughing spells can include a large number of rapid, hard coughs.

Following the coughing spell, there’s often a gasp for breath that causes a “whooping” sound, which gives the disease its name. You or your child may also experience vomiting after severe coughing spells.

Not all people develop the coughing fits and their accompanying whoop. Infants may appear to be struggling for breath or gasping for air. They may also temporarily stop breathing after a severe spell. This is called apnea. Adults may just develop a persistent, hacking cough.

You should go to the doctor immediately if a coughing spell causes you or your child to:

  • struggle to breathe
  • have pauses in breathing
  • inhale with a whooping sound after a coughing spell
  • vomit
  • turn blue in color

Whooping cough can be difficult to diagnose in its early stages due to its similarity to other respiratory infections like the common cold. As the disease progresses, your doctor may be able to diagnose it by discussing your symptoms and listening to the accompanying cough.

They may also perform additional tests to help with their diagnosis, including:

  • a swab from the back of the nose to test for the presence of the B. pertussis bacteria
  • blood tests to check for signs of infection or inflammation
  • a chest X-ray to look for inflammation or fluid accumulation in your lungs, particularly if the doctor suspects pneumonia as a complication of whooping cough

The treatment for whooping cough is a course of antibiotics. Since infants are particularly prone to complications from whooping cough, they may need to be hospitalized for treatment.

While you’re being treated for whooping cough, you should be sure to rest thoroughly and stay hydrated. You should also stay home until you’re no longer contagious, which is after five full days of antibiotics.

Whooping cough is a highly contagious respiratory infection that’s caused by bacteria. It can be spread to other people when a person with the infection coughs or sneezes. Infants and young children are particularly vulnerable to severe complications from whooping cough.

You can help to prevent whooping cough by making sure that you and your child stay up to date on your recommended vaccinations. If you suspect that you or your child has been exposed to whooping cough, contact your doctor.

If you’re sick with whooping cough, plan to stay home until you’re no longer contagious. Additionally, frequent hand-washing and practicing good hygiene can help prevent the spread of many infectious diseases, including whooping cough.