What Is Whooping Cough?

What Is Whooping Cough?

whooping cough treatment

Pertussis – also known as whooping cough, is a very contagious disease caused by the Bordetella pertussis bacteria. These bacteria attach to tiny hair like extensions in the upper respiratory tract called cilia and release toxic substances; these substances damage the cilia and cause the airways to become inflamed.

Whooping cough is only found in humans and spreads from person to person by:

  • Coughing and sneezing
  • Sharing the same air space as an infected person (close talking etc)


People are contagious up to around two weeks after the coughing starts and it’s not uncommon for siblings, parents and caregivers to pass on pertussis to babies and infants without realizing they have the disease


Whooping Cough Early Symptoms

The symptoms of pertussis will usually show around 5 to 10 days after infection, but may take up to 3 weeks to develop.

Early symptoms can last 1 to 2 weeks and may include:

  • Cold like symptoms
  • Runny nose
  • Low grade fever
  • Occasional, mild cough
  • Apnea in babies (a pause in their breathing)


  • Around half of the babies under one year of age who get whooping cough need hospital care
  • Because the early symptoms of whooping cough can mimic the common cold it may not be diagnosed until more severe symptoms are present.

Whooping Cough Later-stage Symptoms

After 1 to 2 weeks the later symptoms of pertussis may appear, and include:

  • Rapid fits of coughing (paroxysms) followed by a high pitched whooping sound
  • Vomiting during or after the coughing fits
  • Exhaustion after the coughing fits

It is very important to understand:

  • Babies infected with pertussis do not cough – they have pauses/stops in their breathing (apnea) and this may cause them to turn blue due to lack of oxygen
  • Pertussis may cause rapid, violent coughing until there is no more air left in the lungs, when this happens the natural response is to inhale as much air as possible, as quickly as possible; when the air is inhaled through inflamed airways a high pitched sound is heard (whooping)
  • The severity and length of the coughing fits can cause you to vomit and feel exhausted afterwards
  • The coughing fits may become more severe as the disease progresses and can last up to 10 weeks or more


  • Recovery from pertussis is a slow process; the cough gradually becomes milder and less frequent, durng this time you are at high risk of contracting other respiratory infections.
  • The coughing fits can be re-triggered many months after the initial infection

Whooping Cough Complications

Babies and Children

A pertussis infection in babies and young children is a very serious situation, and can be fatal.

Around half of all babies under one year old who contract pertussis will need hospital care because:

  • 1 out of 4 will get pneumonia
  • 1 out of 100 will have violent convulsions
  • 3 out of 5 will have apnea
  • 1 out of 300 will have encephalopathy
  • 1 out of 100 will die

Teens and Adults

Although teens and adults can still get complications from pertussis they are generally less serious. Most complications are caused by the cough itself, for example fracturing a rib due to sever coughing, or passing out from lack of oxygen during a coughing fit and being injured in the process

The most common complications in teens and adults are:

  • Weight loss
  • Loss of bladder control
  • Passing out



Cortese MM, Bisgard KM. Pertussis. In: Wallace RB, Kohatsu N, Kast JM, ed. Maxcy-Rosenau-Last Public Health & Preventive Medicine, Fifteenth Edition. The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc.; 2008:111–14.

National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System, 2004–2014. Division of Integrated Surveillance Systems and Services, National Center for Public Health Informatics, Coordinating Center for Health Information and Service, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Atlanta, GA 30333.

Tanaka M, Vitek CR, Pascual FB, Bisgard KM, Tate JE, Murphy TV. Trends in pertussis among infants in the United States, 1980-1999. JAMA. 2003;290:2968–75.

Whooping Cough Treatment

If you suspect your child or yourself has pertussis it is vitally important to see your doctor for a definitive diagnosis and treatment plan, early treatment with antibiotics can make the infection less severe and help reduce the risk of it spreading.


Treatment For Pertussis At Home

  • Do not give cough medications unless instructed by your doctor
  • Give antibiotics exactly as the doctor prescribed
  • Make sure there are no irritants in your home that may trigger coughing, such as chemical fumes, dust and smoke
  • Use a mist vaporizer to help loosen up the mucous and sooth the cough
  • Practice good personal hygiene – especially hand washing
  • Give them plenty of fluids like water, juice, soups etc
  • Give them small meals every few hours to help prevent vomiting


The absolute best way to prevent pertussis is to get vaccinated.

Read Vaccinations  – The Facts


More Information From The CDC (Centers For Disease Control)