Whooping cough

Synonyms: Pertussis

Medical Specialties: Allergy/immunology, Pediatrics, Preventative medicine

Clinical Definition

Whooping cough is a highly contagious respiratory disease caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis. It is characterized by a violent, uncontrollable coughing that makes it difficult to breathe. 

In Our Own Words

Whooping cough occurs when bacteria attach to and damage the cillia in the upper respiratory tract, releasing toxins that cause inflammation. This highly contagious disease is characterized by severe coughing fits that makes it hard to breathe. After a coughing fit, an affected person usually has to take a deep breath, which results in a “whooping” sound, especially in children.


The respiratory disease is spread when an infected individual coughs or sneezes in close proximity to others. It begins like a common cold, with the severe coughing fits starting about 10 to 12 days after exposure. It usually lasts about six weeks.


Whooping cough is most common among adolescents and adults; routine immunizations can help prevent the illness. Though a childhood vaccine called DTaP is available, more serious illness and fatalities are possible in infants and unimmunized young children. 

Relevant Conditions
  • Chronic cough
  • Viral upper respiratory tract infection
Side Effects
  • Runny nose
  • Low-grade fever
  • Apnea in infants
  • Extreme coughing fits
  • Vomiting from the cough (i.e., posttussive emesis)
Share this article
  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Pertussis (Whooping Cough).” Updated November 2012. http://www.cdc.gov/pertussis/about/index.html. Accessed September 2013.
  • Cleveland Clinic. “Tetanus and Pertussis Vaccine.” http://my.clevelandclinic.org. Accessed October 2013.
  • PubMed Health. “Pertussis.” http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0002528/. Accessed September 2013.
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