What Is Whooping Cough (Pertussis)?
Whooping cough (pertussis) is a contagious respiratory infection that causes a severe cough. The cough is characterized by violent coughing fits, after which a person needs to inhale deeply, which can result in a “whooping” sound.
Vaccines are typically given in childhood to prevent whooping cough, though whooping cough can affect babies who have not gotten the full dose of the vaccine yet, or adolescents and adults who were not vaccinated. Pertussis can be deadly for infants under one year old.
What Are Symptoms of Whooping Cough (Pertussis)?
Early symptoms of whooping cough (pertussis) usually last 1 to 2 weeks and include:
- Mild cough
- Runny nose
- Stuffy nose
- Low-grade fever
- Pauses in breathing (apnea) in babies
- Other cold symptoms
After about 1 to 2 weeks the cold symptoms get better, but the cough worsens. Later symptoms of whooping cough include:
- Coughing fits characterized by violent and rapid coughing followed by a high-pitched “whoop” sound
- Gagging, choking, or trouble breathing during coughing fits
- Vomiting during or after coughing fits
- Exhaustion after coughing fits
The cough often starts to improve after 2 to 6 weeks, but it can take months for the cough to go away completely.
What Causes Whooping Cough (Pertussis)?
Whooping cough (pertussis) is caused by a type of bacteria called Bordetella pertussis. That bacteria get into the nose and throat and attach to tiny, hair-like extensions (cilia) lining the upper respiratory tract. From there, the bacteria releases toxins that damage the cilia, causing inflammation of the airways and leading to symptoms of whooping cough.
Is Whooping Cough (Pertussis) Contagious?
Whooping cough (pertussis) is highly contagious and is transmitted from person-to-person through respiratory droplets propelled into the air when an infected person sneezes or coughs.
People with whooping cough are most contagious about 2 weeks after the coughing starts. Antibiotics may shorten the amount of time someone is contagious.
How Is Whooping Cough (Pertussis) Diagnosed?
Whooping cough (pertussis) is diagnosed with a patient history of symptoms and a physical exam. Tests to confirm whooping cough include:
- Swabbing mucus from the back of the nose or throat for testing
- Blood tests
- Chest X-ray
What Is the Treatment for Whooping Cough (Pertussis)?
Whooping cough (pertussis) is usually treated with antibiotics, such as:
In addition to the infected person, people living with the patient may also be advised to take antibiotics to prevent infection.
Most babies younger than 4 months will need to be treated in the hospital because pertussis is very serious and can be deadly in babies. Treatment for babies in the hospital may include:
- Nutrition (if necessary)
Home remedies to ease symptoms of whooping cough include:
- Drink plenty of fluids
- Eat small meals to avoid vomiting after coughing
- Don’t smoke and avoid secondhand smoke
What Are Complications of Whooping Cough (Pertussis)?
- Difficulty sleeping
- Middle ear infection (otitis media)
- Weight loss
- Loss of bladder control (urinary incontinence)
- Rib fractures from severe coughing
- Rectal prolapse
- Subdural hematomas
- Slowed or stopped breathing (apnea)
- Brain disease (encephalopathy)
How Do You Prevent Whooping Cough (Pertussis)?
- DTaP for children younger than seven years old
- Tdap for older children, teens, and adults
In addition to getting the pertussis vaccine, to prevent the spread of whooping cough:
- Cover your mouth when you cough, or wear a mask
- Wash hands frequently with soap and warm water for at least 20 seconds
- If you have been diagnosed with whooping cough, stay away from babies and young children until you taken antibiotics for 5 days
- If you, your child, or anyone in your household has been diagnosed with whooping cough, make sure all members of the household get the pertussis vaccine if they haven't yet had it
- Do not send your child back to school or day care until the doctor says it’s ok
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