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Pertussis (Whooping Cough): Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

Whooping cough (also known as pertussis) is a bacterial infection that gets into your nose and throat and affects it. It spreads very easily, but vaccines can help prevent it in children and adults.

A whooping cough is a highly contagious respiratory tract infection that can be marked by a severe hacking cough followed by a high-pitched intake of breath that sounds like “whoop.”

Once you become infected with a whooping cough, it takes about a week or two for signs and symptoms to appear, though it can sometimes take longer.


Symptoms are usually mild at first and resemble those of a common cold. They include:

  • Fever
  • A cough
  • A runny nose
  • Nasal congestion
  • Red, watery eyes

After a week or two, signs and symptoms may worsen, and thick mucus may accumulate inside your airways, causing uncontrollable coughing. Severe and prolonged coughing may result in the following:

  • Vomiting
  • a red or blue face
  • extreme fatigue
  • a high-pitched “whoop” sound during the next breath of air

However, many people don’t develop the characteristic whoop, and a persistent hacking cough is the only sign that an adolescent or adult has a whooping cough.

Infants may not cough at all, but may struggle to breathe, or may even temporarily stop breathing.

Children and Whooping Cough

Whooping cough is dangerous in children, especially ones younger than 6 months old (infants), and if you think your child might have it, see your doctor right away.

Children under the age of 18 months with whooping cough should be watched at all times because the coughing episodes can make them stop breathing.

Infants with bad cases may need hospital care, and you can help protect your child by making sure he and any adult who’s around him often gets vaccinated.

Causes of a Whooping Cough

A whooping cough is caused by the bacteria, Bordetella pertussis. Tiny germ-laden droplets are sprayed into the air and breathed into the lungs of anyone who happens to be nearby when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

The whooping cough vaccine usually received as a child eventually wears off, leaving most teenagers and adults susceptible to the infection during an outbreak. Talking of outbreaks, there continue to be regular outbreaks.

Infants who are younger than age 12 months who are unvaccinated or haven’t received the full set of recommended vaccines have the highest risk for severe complications that might result in death.


If doctors diagnose a whooping cough early on, antibiotics can help cut down coughing and other symptoms, and can also help prevent the infection from spreading to others. Unfortunately, most people are diagnosed too late for antibiotics to work well.

Don’t use over-the-counter cough medicines, cough suppressants, or medicines that make you cough up mucus, to treat a whooping cough, as such medications don’t work.

If your coughing spells are so bad that you don’t drink enough fluids, you risk dehydration and should call your doctor right away.



Teens and adults often recover from a whooping cough with no problems, but when complications occur, they tend to be side effects of the strenuous coughing. Complications include:

  • Bruised or cracked ribs
  • Abdominal hernias
  • Broken blood vessels in the skin or in the whites of one’s eyes


In infants, complications from whooping cough are more severe and may include:

  • Seizures
  • Pneumonia
  • Slowed or stopped breathing
  • Brain damage
  • Dehydration
  • weight loss due to feeding difficulties

Because infants and toddlers are at greatest risk of complications from whooping cough, which can be life-threatening for infants younger than 6 months old, they’re more likely to need treatment in a hospital.


The best way to prevent whooping cough is with the vaccine, which doctors often give in combination with vaccines against two other serious diseases, like diphtheria and tetanus. Vaccination should be started during infancy.

The vaccine usually consists of a series of five injections, typically given to children at the ages of 2 months, 4 months, 6 months, 15 – 18 months, and 4 – 6 years.


Vaccine side effects

Side effects of the vaccine are usually mild and may include:

  • a fever,
  • crankiness,
  • a headache,
  • fatigue or
  • Soreness at the site of the injection.

Booster shots for Adolescents

Because immunity from the whooping cough vaccine tends to fade by age 11, doctors recommend a booster shot at that age to help protect against whooping cough, diphtheria, and tetanus.

For Adults, some varieties of every-10-year tetanus and diphtheria vaccine also include protection against whooping cough, and this vaccine will also reduce the risk of your transmitting whooping cough to infants.

For Pregnant women, health experts now recommend that they should receive the pertussis vaccine between 27 and 36 weeks of gestation, as this may also give some protection to the infant during the first few months of life.



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