Whooping Cough Diagnosed in Adults: What Comes Next

Medically Reviewed by Nayana Ambardekar, MD on June 06, 2023
3 min read

It's official. Your doctor confirmed that the cough you've been dealing with is more than just a cold. It's whooping cough, also called pertussis. Now it's time to treat it and learn how to make sure you don't give it to others.

Your doctor will likely suggest an antibiotic to kill the bacteria that are causing your whooping cough. It works best if you take it early in your illness. That keeps your infection from getting worse and tamps down your coughing fits. Early treatment also shortens the amount of time you're sick and helps prevent you from spreading the disease to others.

The type of antibiotic you take depends on things like how old you are, your overall health, and how well you can handle the side effects.

Some of the antibiotics your doctor may prescribe are:

If you've had whooping cough for 3 weeks or longer before you treat it, antibiotics are less likely to help. After that long, the bacteria have already left your body, and the drugs won't have any effect. But even though the bacteria are gone, you'll continue to have symptoms for a while.

Whooping cough and its symptoms can last for 3 to 6 months. During that time, your cough may disrupt your sleep, cause dizziness, and even lead to a broken rib.

The cure for a cough is time. Over-the-counter cough medicines aren't usually much help for whooping cough.

There are steps you can take on your own, though, to ease your coughing fits.

Follow your doctor's orders. Take medications the way you're instructed, and finish the whole treatment.

Rest. A coughing body is a tired body. Be sure you're getting a healthy amount of sleep to give yourself time to heal and recover.

Clear away coughing triggers. Keep your home free of things that can start up your cough, like pet hair, dust, smoke, or other fumes.

Moisten your cough. Use a cool mist humidifier to keep the air around you moist.

Fill up with fluids. Get plenty of water, and load up on liquids like broths, soups, and juices so your body stays hydrated as you deal with the drying effects of a cough.

Eat light bites. If you're coughing enough to cause vomiting, keep your meals small so your stomach isn't too full.           

If throwing up is a big problem, your doctor may give you fluids through an IV to make sure you don't get dehydrated.

Whooping cough is highly contagious. You can pass it to others from the time you notice the first symptoms, like a runny nose, low-grade fever, and sneezing.

You stay contagious until you've taken 5 days of antibiotics. Doctors recommend giving antibiotics to everyone who lives with you to keep them from getting the infection.

You can help keep germs from spreading to others if you wash your hands frequently, wipe down surfaces like countertops and sinks often, and wear a mask to cover your cough when it's at its worst. 

Keep in mind that even if your friends and loved ones had the vaccine for whooping cough (Tdap) as kids, it loses strength over time. Doctors recommend adults ages 19 to 65 get a booster shot to strengthen your defenses. You should also get the Tdap booster if you're going to be around babies under 1 year old.

Talk to your doctor about whether you need a letter for your manager at work to excuse you for rest and recovery. Not only will this help you get better sooner, it will give the antibiotics longer to rid your body of the bacteria that could spread to others.