Whooping Cough (Pertussis)

  • Medical Author:
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

  • Medical Editor: John Mersch, MD, FAAP
    John Mersch, MD, FAAP

    John Mersch, MD, FAAP

    Dr. Mersch received his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of California, San Diego, and prior to entering the University Of Southern California School Of Medicine, was a graduate student (attaining PhD candidate status) in Experimental Pathology at USC. He attended internship and residency at Children's Hospital Los Angeles.

Quick GuideWhooping Cough (Pertussis) Symptoms, Vaccine Facts

Whooping Cough (Pertussis) Symptoms, Vaccine Facts

What specialists treat whooping cough?

Whooping cough may be treated by primary-care providers, including internists, pediatricians, and family medicine specialists. In some cases, infectious-disease specialists may be consulted.

How do health-care professionals diagnose whooping cough?

When a patient has the typical symptoms of whooping cough, the diagnosis can be made from the clinical history. However, the disease and its symptoms, including its severity, can vary among affected individuals. In cases in which the diagnosis is not certain or a doctor wants to confirm the diagnosis, laboratory tests can be carried out. Culture of the bacterium Bordetella pertussis from nasal secretions can establish the diagnosis. Another test that has been used to successfully identify the bacterium and diagnose whooping cough is the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test that can identify genetic material from the bacterium in nasal secretions.

What is the treatment for whooping cough?

Antibiotics directed against Bordetella pertussis can be effective in reducing the severity of whooping cough when administered early in the course of the disease. Antibiotic therapy can also help reduce the risk of transmission of the bacterium to other household members as well as to others who may come into contact with an infected person. Unfortunately, most people with whooping cough are diagnosed later with the condition in the second (paroxysmal) stage of the disease.

Treatment with antibiotics is recommended for anyone who has had the disease for less than three to four weeks. Azithromycin (Zithromax), clarithromycin (Biaxin), erythromycin (E-Mycin, Eryc, Ery-Tab, PCE, Pediazole, Ilosone), and sulfamethoxazole (Bactrim, Septra) are antibiotics that have been shown to be effective in treating whooping cough. It is unclear whether antibiotics have any benefit for people who have been ill with whooping cough for longer than three to four weeks, although antibiotic therapy still is often considered for this group. There is no proven effective treatment for the paroxysms of coughing that accompany whooping cough.

Antibiotics also are routinely administered to people who have had close contact with an infected person, regardless of their vaccination status.

Do not give an infected child cough syrup or cough medicines unless instructed to do so by a doctor. They have not been shown to be of benefit, and they may cause sedation that leads to worsened outcomes.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 10/28/2016

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