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Whooping Cough: Causes, Symptoms, and Treatment

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

Symptoms

At first, whooping cough has the same symptoms as the average cold:

  • Mild coughing
  • Sneezing
  • Runny nose
  • Low fever (below 102 degrees F)

You may also have diarrhea early on.

After about 7-10 days, the cough turns into “coughing spells” that end with a whooping sound as the person tries to breathe in air.

Because the cough is dry and doesn't produce mucus, these spells can last up to 1 minute. Sometimes it can cause your face to briefly turn red or purple.

Most people with whooping cough have coughing spells, but not everyone does.

Infants may not make the whooping sound or even cough, but they might gasp for air or try to catch their breath during these spells. Some may vomit.

Sometimes adults with whooping cough just have a cough that won’t go away.

Children and Whooping Cough

Whooping cough is dangerous in babies, especially ones younger than 6 months old. In severe cases, they may need to go to an ER.

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 spells can make them stop breathing. Young babies with bad cases may need hospital care, too.

Help protect your child by making sure he and any adult who's around him often gets vaccinated.

For older children and adults with whooping cough, the outlook is usually very good.

Treatment

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

Don't use over-the-counter cough medicines, cough suppressants, or expectorants (medicines that make you cough up mucus) to treat whooping cough. They don't work.

If your coughing spells are so bad that they keep you from drinking enough fluids, you risk dehydration. Call your doctor right away.

Whooping Cough: What Happens

If a person with whooping cough sneezes, laughs, or coughs, small droplets that contain the bacteria may fly through the air. You might get sick when you breathe the droplets.

When the bacteria get into your airways, they attach to the tiny hairs in the linings of the lungs. The bacteria cause swelling and inflammation, which lead to a dry, long-lasting cough and other cold-like symptoms.

Whooping cough can cause anyone at any age to get sick. It may last 3 to 6 weeks. You can get sick from whooping cough even if you've already been vaccinated, but that's not likely.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH on February 18, 2014
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