Whooping Cough: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatments

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Whooping cough is a respiratory infection that causes severe coughing spells. These can be so severe that you may have difficulty breathing or begin vomiting. If you have a cough that ends in a “whoop” sound and is so hard that you’ve felt tired or nauseous after coughing, you may have whooping cough. If you have noticed these symptoms in your child, your child may have whooping cough. It’s important to get treated for whooping cough to avoid any complications and to avoid spreading it to other people. If you’re concerned that you or your child has whooping cough and want to learn about it, continue reading for more information.

What Is Whooping Cough?

Whooping cough, also called pertussis, is an infection known for its severe cough followed by an intake of air that sounds like a “whoop.” It is caused by the Bordatella pertussis bacteria, and this infection is very contagious. If you have whooping cough, you can infect up to 12 to 15 people, and you are most contagious two weeks after your cough begins. 

At first, whooping cough looks like the common cold, but as the infection progresses, the cough becomes more violent and rapid. Coughing fits from whooping cough can continue for 10 weeks or more after your symptoms start. That’s why whooping cough is sometimes called the “100-day cough.”

Signs and Symptoms

You usually develop symptoms of whooping cough five to 10 days after being exposed to it. Sometimes, however, you won’t get symptoms for as long as three weeks after exposure. 

Whooping cough symptoms are divided into three phases. 

Phase One

In the first phase, you may have symptoms similar to the common cold for 1-2 weeks, such as:

  • Runny nose
  • Nasal congestion
  • Red, watery eyes
  • Fever
  • Cough

Phase Two

Then in the second phase, your symptoms can worsen. This phase is marked by the characteristic whooping cough. Your coughing may get so bad that you:

  • Vomit
  • Become red or blue in the face
  • Pass out
  • Become short of breath
  • Get extreme fatigue
  • Have a high-pitched “whoop” sound when you take in air

Phase Three

Then in the third phase, your cough becomes less frequent and less severe. During this phase, you continue to have coughing for up to several months as your body recovers. 

You don’t always get the characteristic “whoop” with this infection. If you are an adult or adolescent, sometimes your only symptom is a persistent cough. If you have a baby who gets sick with whooping cough, they may not cough at all and instead may struggle to breathe or stop breathing. It’s important to speak with your doctor if you develop any symptoms like these to get the right diagnosis and treatment.

Complications

Teens and adults who get whooping cough usually recover from it without issue. However, there are some complications that they can develop because of strenuous coughing:

  • Abdominal hernias, or parts of your intestines poking out of the muscles of your abdomen
  • Broken blood vessels in the skin or the whites of the eyes

In babies who get whooping cough, especially babies younger than six months old, complications can be more serious:

  • Pneumonia
  • Slowed or stopped breathing
  • Dehydration or weight loss due to difficulties with feeding
  • Seizures or brain damage occur rarely

Causes of Whooping Cough

Whooping cough is caused by a germ called Bordetella pertussis. Bordetella pertussis is a bacterium that attaches itself to the throat, releases toxins, and causes your throat to swell. You get whooping cough when someone with this infection coughs or sneezes respiratory droplets into the air. Then, you breathe in those droplets.

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Babies younger than 12 months are more likely to get whooping cough because they are either unvaccinated or have not received all the vaccines needed for full protection against whooping cough. Some adolescents and adults are also at increased risk of getting whooping cough because immunity from vaccines against this infection wanes over time.

Diagnostic Tests

Your doctor can usually diagnose you with whooping cough by asking about your symptoms and listening to your cough. However, your doctor may use other tests to diagnose you:

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  • Test the mucus from your throat: Your doctor can use a cotton swab to take a sample of mucus from your throat through your nose. Then your doctor can give that sample to a lab to check it for Bordetella pertussis bacteria.
  • Blood tests: Your doctor might have a sample of your blood taken to check how many white blood cells it has. High white blood cell levels suggest you have some infection or inflammation. This test can detect any infection or inflammation and is not specific for whooping cough.
  • A chest X-ray: Your doctor may order imaging of your chest to check for inflammation or fluid in the lungs, which can be caused by whooping cough.

Treatments for Whooping Cough

Antibiotics are used to treat whooping cough. This infection is more dangerous for babies, so your baby may need to be hospitalized when receiving whooping cough treatment. Treatment for older adults and children can generally be taken at home.

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Unfortunately, there aren’t many medications that can improve your coughing fits, not even over-the-counter cough medications. It is not recommended to give over-the-counter cough medicine to kids younger than four years old. Do not use cough medications or give them to your child who has whooping cough unless instructed by a doctor. Your cough improves over time as you recover from whooping cough, although coughing fits may return months after your recovery.

There are many things you can do at home to recover from whooping cough:

  • Get plenty of rest
  • Drink lots of fluids, like water, juice, and soups
  • Eat smaller meals to avoid vomiting after coughing
  • Keep the air in your home clear of irritants that can trigger coughing spells, such as tobacco smoke and fireplace fumes
  • Prevent transmission of whooping cough by covering your cough, washing your hands often, and wearing a mask when you’re around other people

Because of how whooping cough is spread through respiratory droplets, your doctor may give antibiotics to everyone living in your home to prevent them from getting sick. Even with this prevention, it’s important for you to stay isolated while you’re sick. You can spread whooping cough during the first stage when you have cold symptoms and during the second stage when you have a severe cough.

Preventing Whooping Cough

You can prevent whooping cough by getting the pertussis vaccine, which is typically given in combination with two other vaccines, the diphtheria vaccine, and the tetanus vaccine. Together these are called Tdap or DTaP, depending on whether it’s the type given to adults or kids. The DTaP pertussis vaccine is given to all children as a series of five injections at the following ages:

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  • Two months
  • Four months
  • Six months
  • 15 to 18 months
  • Four to six years

Booster shots, or extra doses of the pertussis vaccine that strengthen previous vaccines, are given as Tdap to:

  • Adolescents: Because pertussis immunity tends to weaken by age 11, doctors suggest you get a booster shot.
  • Pregnant people: Health experts recommend that pregnant people should receive the pertussis vaccine 27 to 36 weeks into their pregnancy.
  • Adults: Adults can be vaccinated against whooping cough if they have never been vaccinated before.

If you’ve been exposed to whooping cough, your doctor may give you antibiotics to prevent you from getting the infection if you are:

  • A doctor
  • Pregnant
  • Younger than 12 months old
  • Have a health condition that increases your risk of getting whooping cough complications, such as asthma or a condition that weakens your immune system
  • Living with someone who has whooping cough
  • Living with someone who is at high risk of getting severe complications from whooping cough

When Should I See a Doctor?

Call your doctor if you have had coughing spells that don’t seem to be going away, especially if these coughing spells are so severe that they cause you to:

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  • Vomit
  • Turn red or blue
  • Struggle with breathing or noticeably have pauses in breathing
  • Inhale with a whooping sound

Call your child’s pediatrician if they have had these symptoms as well. Ask your doctor for more information about this infection, and make sure you or your child get treated as soon as possible.

Resource Links:

  • “Pertussis (Whooping cough)” via CDC
  • “Pertussis” via StatPearls 
  • “Whooping cough” via Mayo Clinic
  • “Pertussis” via NORD
  • “Pertussis: Summary of Vaccine Recommendations” via CDC