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Whooping Cough (Pertussis) - Topic Overview

How is whooping cough diagnosed?

Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms and do a physical exam. To rule out other health problems, he or she may order tests such as a chest X-ray or blood tests.

It can sometimes be hard to diagnose whooping cough, because you may seem healthy between coughing episodes. Your doctor may take a sample of mucus from your nose and have it tested for the bacteria that cause whooping cough.

How is it treated?

Whooping cough is usually treated with antibiotics. These medicines make it less likely that you will spread the disease. Also, if you start taking the antibiotics when you first get whooping cough, the disease may not last as long. Family members and other close contacts may be prescribed antibiotics before they have any symptoms.1

Babies, especially those younger than 4 months, usually are treated in the hospital. This allows the doctor to see how well the baby deals with and recovers from coughing spells. It also makes it easier for the baby to get extra oxygen and other care if needed.

To avoid spreading the illness:1

  • Children with whooping cough need to take antibiotics for at least 5 days before going back to day care or school. If your child didn't take antibiotics, wait 21 days after the start of symptoms before sending your child to school or day care.
  • Adults or teens with whooping cough need to take antibiotics for at least 5 days before being near young children or going to work at a school, a day care center, or a health facility.

If your child has whooping cough:

  • Create a quiet, calm, restful environment.
  • Control possible triggers of coughing, such as smoke, dust, sudden noises or lights, and changes in temperature.
  • Give your child frequent, small sips of fluids and nutritious foods.
  • Use a humidifier in your child's room. But watch closely to see its effect. Sometimes humidity makes coughing spells worse, in which case it should be avoided.
  • Have your child who is age 1 year or older lie on his or her side or stomach rather than on the back. If your baby is younger than 1 year old, talk to your baby's doctor about the best way to position your child.

Many of these same tips will help if you're an adult with whooping cough. Make sure you get enough fluids, avoid triggers like smoke and dust, and consider using a humidifier.

Over-the-counter medicines, such as cough syrups and antihistamines, don't help with whooping cough.

How can you prevent whooping cough?

Making sure that you and your children are immunized against whooping cough is the best way to prevent it. Starting at age 2 months, children need a series of shots (called DTaP) to protect against whooping cough. A booster shot (called Tdap) is recommended at age 11 or 12 and for all teens and adults who never had a Tdap shot.

Because whooping cough symptoms can be mild in adults, you may not know that you have the illness. Without a Tdap shot, if you have whooping cough, you can spread whooping cough to a young infant or another person who isn't protected and for whom the disease is much more dangerous.

You can get whooping cough more than one time, and you may get it years apart. But you will be less likely to get it again if you get the shots as recommended.

Washing your hands often and staying away from people who have a bad cough may also help you avoid getting the disease.

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WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: August 31, 2012
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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