Key Points about Whooping Cough

  • Whooping cough is a very contagious bacterial infection of the respiratory tract.
  • It occurs most often in children and teenagers.
  • Whooping cough is treated with antibiotics.
  • Whooping cough in infants may require hospitalization, as the condition can be very dangerous for young children.
  • Call your doctor if your child has symptoms of whooping cough. 

Overview

Pertussis, or whooping cough, is a bacterial infection of the respiratory tract that is very contagious. It is most common in children who have not received the pertussis vaccination, in children who have not completed their full course of the vaccination, and in teenagers whose immunity to whooping cough has worn off.

True to its name, whooping cough is sometimes accompanied by an inhaling noise in between coughs that sounds like a “whoop.” Coughing may be so severe that it leads to vomiting or causes the face to turn red or blue. Not all children with whooping cough make a “whooping” noise. Infants with whooping cough may not even cough at all, and mainly experience trouble breathing.

Call your child’s doctor if your child has a cough accompanied by trouble breathing, or by redness or blueness in the face. 

Whooping cough causes

Bordetella pertussis is the bacteria responsible for whopping cough. The bacteria spreads via airborne droplets from an infected person, such as from coughing. When the infection takes hold, it causes a thick mucus to develop in the airways, which leads to the repeated need to cough.

Whooping cough risk factors

Whooping cough occurs most often in:

  • Unvaccinated children
  • Children who have not completed their vaccinations against pertussis
  • Teenagers whose immunity to pertussis has worn off

Whooping cough symptoms

Whooping cough symptoms generally develop about a week after the initial infection. Initial symptoms are similar to the common cold, and may include:

  • Congestion or runny nose
  • Fever
  • Cough
  • Eyes that are red and watery

Within one to two weeks, coughing can become so intense that it causes:

  • Redness or blueness in the face
  • Fatigue
  • Vomiting
  • A “whooping” noise when taking a breath after coughing

Whooping cough complications

Infants and young children are at an increased risk of developing serious complications from whooping cough. These complications can become life-threatening, and can include:

  • Seizures
  • Brain damage
  • Dehydration
  • Losing weight
  • Pneumonia
  • Impaired breathing

Whooping cough prevention 

Vaccination is the best prevention against whooping cough. If you have been exposed to someone with whooping cough and if you are at a high risk of developing complications, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to prevent infection.

Whooping cough diagnosis 

When diagnosing whooping cough, your doctor will review your symptoms and listen to the sound of your cough. Your doctor may also order tests such as:

  • A culture of the nose or throat, to look for the bacteria that causes whooping cough
  • A blood test, to determine if your body may be fighting an infection
  • An X-ray of the chest, to see whether pneumonia has developed

Whooping cough treatment

Whooping cough is treated with antibiotics. Resting at home and drinking lots of water and other fluids can aid in your recovery.

Infants who develop whooping cough are more likely to need treatment in a hospital, as the condition can be life-threatening for this age group.

When to seek care

Call your child’s doctor if your child’s cough is accompanied by:

  • An inhale that sounds like a “whoop”
  • Struggling to breathe
  • Vomiting
  • Turning blue or red in the face

Next Steps

Make sure your child is up to date on all his or her vaccinations, including the pertussis vaccination.