Whooping Cough

Whooping cough, also called pertussis, is a highly contagious respiratory disease that can be serious for people of all ages. It is especially dangerous — even deadly — in infants and small children.

What Is Whooping Cough?

Whooping cough is characterized by violent coughing fits that make it difficult to breathe. The disease gets its name from the distinctive “whooping” sound people make as they gasp for air after having one of these severe coughing episodes.

Causes of Whooping Cough

Whooping cough is caused by the bacteria Bordetella pertussis. When an infected person coughs or sneezes, the germ is expelled in droplets, which spread from person-to-person through the air.

Stages of Whooping Cough

Whooping cough progresses through three stages:

  • catarrhal, the initial phase of illness when mild symptoms may be mistaken for the common cold or flu
  • paroxysmal, which includes episodes of intense coughing called “paroxysms” with a telltale “whoop” sound
  • convalescent, a period of slow recovery that begins about four weeks after onset of symptoms

Signs and Symptoms of Whooping Cough

Symptoms of pertussis last for about six to 10 weeks and vary by stage.

  • Catarrhal stage: Symptoms are mild, last for one to two weeks, and may include a general feeling of being unwell, runny nose, sneezing, watery eyes and a low-grade fever. A persistent cough develops and becomes increasingly more frequent and intense. The coughing is often worse at night.
  • Paroxysmal stage: Symptoms include episodes of the uncontrollable coughing with the distinctive “whoop” sound. In contrast, the cough associated with croup, an upper airway infection, is a “barking” sound. The person may struggle to breathe during these episodes, may cough up large amounts of mucus and may vomit afterward.

    Complications that may develop at this stage include infection of the middle ear and bacterial pneumonia if mucus is drawn into the lungs. Other serious complications caused by the strain of coughing include nosebleeds, blood vessels in the whites of the eyes, seizures, lung damage and, in more severe cases, a collapsed lung. In some rare cases, the brain may become inflamed.
  • Convalescent stage: Symptoms begin to improve but coughing episodes may continue to recur for months.

How Is Whooping Cough Diagnosed?

In addition to physical examination and review of symptoms, diagnostic tests for pertussis include:

  • blood test for pertussis antibodies
  • laboratory analysis of a mucus sample taken from the nose or back of the throat

Prevention of Whooping Cough

Two vaccines are available to help prevent pertussis as well as tetanus and diphtheria:

  • DTaP vaccine is for children younger that 7
  • Tdap vaccine is for older children and adults

Treatments for Whooping Cough

Prompt diagnosis and treatment for whooping cough is important to shorten the length of the illness, reduce the severity of symptoms and minimize the risk of complications.

During the first three weeks after symptoms appear, your primary care provider may prescribe medication to fight the active bacterial infection.

After three weeks, the bacteria are gone from the body and antibiotic treatment is not likely to be beneficial. At this point, home care such as rest, fluids and use of a cool mist vaporizer can help soothe symptoms. Cough medicine is generally not effective and not recommended for infants and small children.

If symptoms severely restrict breathing or complications develop, treatment in a hospital may be needed.