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Whooping Cough (Pertussis) - Topic Overview

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What is whooping cough?

Whooping cough (pertussis) is a disease that causes very severe coughing that may last for months. During bursts of violent coughing, you may make a noise that sounds like a "whoop" when you try to take a breath. You can cough so hard that you hurt a rib.

Whooping cough spreads easily from one person to another. Getting the pertussis vaccine can help you avoid the disease, make it less severe, and prevent you from spreading it to those who are at risk for more serious problems.

With good care, most people recover from whooping cough with no problems. But severe coughing spells can decrease the blood's oxygen supply and lead to other problems, such as pneumonia. The illness can be dangerous in older adults and young children, especially babies who aren't old enough to have had the pertussis vaccine.

What causes whooping cough?

Whooping cough is caused by bacteria that infect the top of the throat (pharynx). The bacteria bother the throat, which causes coughing.

When someone with whooping cough coughs, sneezes, or laughs, tiny drops of fluid holding the bacteria are put into the air. The bacteria can infect others when people breathe in the drops or get them on their hands and touch their mouth or nose. After the bacteria infect someone, symptoms appear about 7 to 14 days later.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of whooping cough may occur in three stages, especially in young children. Adults and older children may not follow this pattern of symptoms.

In stage 1, symptoms are like those of a cold:

  • You sneeze and have a runny nose, a mild cough, watery eyes, and sometimes a mild fever.
  • The symptoms last from several days to 2 weeks.
  • This is when you are most likely to spread the disease.

In stage 2, the cold symptoms get better, but the cough gets worse.

  • The cough goes from a mild, dry, hacking cough to a severe cough that you can't control.
  • You may cough so long and hard that you can't breathe. When you can take a breath of air, it may make a whooping noise.
  • After a coughing fit, you may vomit and feel very tired.
  • Between coughing fits, you feel normal.
  • Symptoms are most severe in this stage. They usually last 2 to 4 weeks or longer.

In stage 3, you still have symptoms, but you feel better and grow stronger.

  • The cough may get louder.
  • Coughing fits may happen off and on for weeks.
  • Coughing fits may flare up if you get a cold or have a similar illness.
  • This stage may last longer if you have never had the vaccine.

Adults and older children usually have milder symptoms than young children. How bad your symptoms are also depends on whether you've had the vaccine and how long ago it was.

Symptoms of whooping cough usually last 6 to 10 weeks, but they may last longer.

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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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