What is whooping cough?

Once infected, whooping cough lasts from three to six months with treatment. With the proper treatment, most people recover and have no lasting effects.
Once infected, whooping cough lasts from three to six months with treatment. With the proper treatment, most people recover and have no lasting effects.

Whooping cough, also called pertussis, is a highly infectious disease that you may pass on without even knowing you have it. Once infected, it can take from three to six months to recover with treatment. With the proper treatment, most people recover and have no lasting effects.

In the 1930s and 1940s, whooping cough caused thousands of deaths. Today, there is a highly-effective whooping cough vaccine available that aims to prevent this disease from spreading. Even so, there’s a possibility that someone who is vaccinated may catch whooping cough if it’s spreading in their community.

Whooping cough is a bacterial infection of the lungs and breathing tubes. This infection spreads very easily from one person to the next and causes serious bouts of coughing. When you cough, you may make a “whooping” noise as you try to breathe, which is where this disease gets its name.

When you have pertussis, you have repeated coughing spells. These coughing spells make it hard to breathe, and you may even hurt your ribs from coughing so hard. Most commonly, people in North America get whooping cough in the summer months.

Symptoms of whooping cough

The first signs and symptoms of whooping cough are similar to those of the common cold. After a week or so, symptoms will progress in stages.

Stage 1 symptoms

In the beginning, the symptoms of whooping cough are very similar to having a cold. Some symptoms that you might experience are:

During this first stage, you may also feel tired or fatigued. These symptoms can last from a few days up to two weeks. It’s during this time that you are the most infectious and most likely to pass the disease on to someone else.

Doctors call this first stage the catarrhal phase. This begins about seven to ten days after you are infected with pertussis.

Stage 2 symptoms

After one or two weeks, you will notice that your cold-like symptoms will improve but that your coughing gets worse. The coughing spells go on for longer and make you cough harder. This is called the paroxysmal phase, since the intense bouts of coughing are called coughing paroxysm.

The cough changes from a light, dry cough to one that you can’t control. These coughing fits may cause you to cough for so long and hard that you feel like you can’t breathe or you might vomit after. These coughing bouts may tire you out and last for several minutes at a time.

A sign that you’re in this phase is the whooping sound at the end of the cough. You may experience several coughing fits throughout the day, including a few within the same hour.

Your coughing may be more intense at nighttime. However, you may feel completely normal between coughing fits with no other symptoms of whooping cough present. Typically, this phase of coughing spells can last from two to four weeks, but it may be longer.

Stage 3 symptoms

As you move into the third stage, you’ll notice that you still have symptoms of whooping cough but that you start to feel better overall. This stage is called the convalescent phase.

At this point, your cough may actually get louder, but the coughing fits are more sporadic. These coughing fits can continue for several more weeks, especially if you don’t have the pertussis vaccine. If you get a cold or other infection in the coming months, your coughing fits will likely spike again.


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Causes of whooping cough

Pertussis is an infection of the respiratory system caused by the Bordetella pertussis (B. pertussis) bacterium. It’s passed when someone with the infection releases tiny droplets or vapors of fluid into the air by sneezing, coughing, or laughing. These droplets can then travel to another person by breathing them in through the mouth or nose, or by contact on the face or hands.

Symptoms of whooping cough usually don’t appear until one or two weeks after you’ve already been infected.

People of all ages can get whooping cough, but babies under six months old, who are too young to get the vaccine, are affected the most. Kids between 11-18 are also affected if their immunity starts to wear off.

When to see the doctor for whooping cough

Whooping cough can be very serious. If your baby is showing symptoms, it's important to seek immediate care to begin treatment. Pertussis can be fatal in babies under three months.

If you suspect that you or your child have whooping cough, you need to seek treatment. Without proper care or treatment, whooping cough can lead to problems like:

Diagnosis and tests for whooping cough

Your doctor will give you a physical exam and ask you about your medical history. After talking about your symptoms, your doctor will take a mucus sample from your nose to confirm if you have whooping cough. Your doctor may also order blood tests or a chest X-ray to further confirm.

Treatments for whooping cough

The course of treatment for whooping cough depends on factors like age and how long you’ve had the infection. Since pertussis is an infection, antibiotics are the most effective way to prevent any further spreading of the bacteria. Antibiotics also help you to recover faster.

If you have a severe case of whooping cough, you may need to stay in the hospital for treatment. Babies and young children are usually hospitalized to monitor their symptoms and care.

While you’re recovering, it’s important to take good care of yourself at home to keep healthy and fight off the infection. You should make sure to drink plenty of fluids and eat small, frequent meals. You should also try to avoid anything that may further cause coughing fits.


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Medically Reviewed on 2/18/2021
American College of Chest Physicians: "About Pertussis (Whooping Cough)."

Johns Hopkins Medicine: "Whooping Cough (Pertussis) in Adults."

KidsHealth from Nemours: "Whooping Cough (Pertussis)."

Michigan Medicine: "Whooping Cough (Pertussis)."

National Health Service: "Whooping cough."