Whooping Cough

Medically Reviewed by Carmelita Swiner, MD on August 02, 2022
5 min read

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

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

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 the condition just have a cough that won’t go away.

Whooping cough is dangerous in babies, especially ones younger than 6 months old, because it can keep them from getting the oxygen they need. This can cause:

  • Brain damage or bleeding on the brain

  • Pneumonia

  • Seizures

  • Apnea

  • Convulsions

 If you think your infant might have it, see their 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 they and any adult who's around them often get vaccinated.

In teens and adults, whooping cough can lead to pneumonia. The severe coughing can also cause:

  • Abdominal hernias

  • Broken blood vessels

  • Bruised ribs

  • Trouble controlling when you pee

  • Trouble sleeping

A type of bacteria called Bordetella pertussis causes whooping cough. If a person with whooping cough sneezes, laughs, or coughs, small droplets that contain this bacteria may fly through the air. You might get sick if you breathe in 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 it even if you've already been vaccinated, but that's not likely.

Because symptoms of whooping cough are a lot like those caused by a cold, the flu, or bronchitis, it can be hard to diagnose it early on. Your doctor may be able to tell that you have it by the sound of your cough, but tests can confirm it.

  • Nose or throat culture. A simple swab of the area where your nose and throat meet can be tested for the bacteria that causes whooping cough.

  • Blood test. A high white blood cell count is a sign that your body is fighting off an infection, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s whooping cough.

  • Chest X-ray. This can show if you have inflammation or fluid in your lungs, which can be a sign of pneumonia.

If you find out you have whooping cough early on, antibiotics can help cut down coughing and other symptoms. They can also help prevent the infection from spreading to others. But most people are diagnosed too late for antibiotics to work well.

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 can get dehydrated. If this happens, call your doctor right away.

You can do a few things to feel better and recover faster:

  • Get lots of rest. This can give your body more strength to fight the illness.

  • Eat small meals as often as you feel up to it. Eating less more often can help prevent the vomiting sometimes caused by harsh coughing spells. 

  • Clean air. Keeping the air around you free of dust, smoke, and other irritants can help soothe coughing.

  • Drink fluids. Stay hydrated by drinking lots of water or juice. If you notice signs of dehydration, like dry lips or peeing less often, call your doctor right away.

The DTaP vaccine can help protect children from whooping cough. Infants should get a dose every other month for the first 6 months, another between 15 and 18 months, then one last time between ages 4 and 6.

Older children and adults need the Tdap vaccine and a booster every 10 years because the vaccine can weaken over time. The best age for kids to get it is between 11 and 12. Adults who’ve never had the vaccine can get it any time. Pregnant women should get a booster to help protect their newborn. 

Another important key to prevention is to protect the people around you. If someone in your household has whooping cough, make sure they cover their mouth or cough into their elbow to keep from spreading the bacteria. Wash hands often, and consider having them wear a mask when they’re near others.

With treatment, you should slowly start to feel better after about 4 weeks. But you’ll probably have a cough and feel weak for 3 to 6 months.