What is whooping cough?

Whooping cough, or pertussis, is a highly contagious respiratory infection, named after its most notable symptom, a “whoop” sound when coughing.

Whooping cough most commonly affects young children who have not yet finished the full course of vaccinations. Whooping cough can be diagnosed and treated by a pediatrician or primary care doctor.

Death is rare but can occur in infants.

Common related conditions
Pneumonia Common Cold (Upper Respiratory Infection)

Causes of whooping cough

Whooping cough is caused by the Bordetella pertussis bacteria.

It spreads through airborne droplets, like many other respiratory infections, and can be contracted days to weeks before symptoms present.

It is most contagious in this early stage of infection when symptoms are mild or unknown.

Risk factors for whooping cough

The biggest risk factor for whooping cough is not receiving the pertussis vaccine or the vaccine wears off. Additional pertussis boosters may be recommended for teenagers, adults, pregnant women and others who will be around infants.

Babies are most at risk for developing whooping cough since their immune systems aren’t fully prepared to fight off the infection until they’ve received all necessary pertussis vaccinations, typically completed by the time they are six months old.

Symptoms of whooping cough

Symptoms of whooping cough are similar to a cold. Early pertussis symptoms are similar to cold symptoms – congestion, runny nose and low fever.

As the disease progresses, symptoms can intensify and include:

  • Violent or rapid coughing fits
  • Vomiting after cough
  • Difficulty breathing while coughing — sounds like a “whoop” between coughs
  • Blue or purple skin around your mouth

Symptoms often present differently dependent on age. Infants may struggle to breathe, and teenagers may have only a hacking cough.

Diagnosis of whooping cough

Whooping cough is diagnosed by a primary care doctor who will do a physical exam and evaluate your symptoms. Diagnosis can be challenging, as the signs are similar to the common cold. Diagnostic tests are often needed to confirm the diagnosis. Tests include:

  • Throat or nasal cultures — a swab is usually taken from the throat or nose and sent to a laboratory to confirm the presence of Bordetella pertussis bacteria
  • Blood tests — high white blood cell counts can indicate the presence of infection or inflammation

Treatments for whooping cough

Antibiotic treatment is needed for whooping cough to kill the Bordetella pertussis bacteria. Infants typically need to be hospitalized during treatment due to the severity of respiratory complications.

In addition to antibiotics, symptoms of whooping cough can be treated with:

  • Warm, hydrating fluids
  • Rest — extra sleep helps your immune system fight the infection
  • Air humidifier — helps prevent you from breathing in dry air

Recovery from whooping cough

Whooping cough is often a slow recovery lasting two to six weeks, but symptoms should lessen once you begin antibiotic treatment.

In most cases, you’re no longer contagious after five days of antibiotic treatment, but you still need to take the full dose prescribed by your primary care provider.

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