Whooping Cough: Symptoms, Complications, and Treatment

Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, is an extremely contagious respiratory tract infection. It’s a severe hacking cough associated with a penetrating intake of breath that sounds like “whoop,” hence the name.

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Whooping cough was considered a childhood disease before the vaccine was developed. Now whooping cough also affects children too young to have completed the full course of vaccinations, Teenagers and adults whose immunity has receded are also affected by whooping cough.

Symptoms of whooping cough

Once a person gets infected with whooping cough, it takes about seven to 10 days for symptoms to appear, though it can sometimes take longer. They’re usually mild at first and resemble those of a common cold: They include

  • Nasal congestion
  • Runny nose
  • Cough
  • Red, watery eyes
  • Fever

READ ALSO: What Causes a Chronic Cough?

After a week or two, symptoms gradually aggravate. The second stage involves thick mucus accumulating inside your airways, causing intense coughing. Severe and protracted coughing attacks may:

  • Cause extreme fatigue
  • Provoke vomiting
  • Result in a red or blue face
  • End with a high-pitched “whoop” sound during the next breath of air

However, many people don’t develop the characteristic whoop. Sometimes, a persistent hacking cough is the only sign that indicates an adolescent or adult has whooping cough. In the case of infants, they may not cough at all, but may struggle to breathe, or they may even temporarily stop breathing.

Causes of whooping cough

Whooping cough is caused by a bacteria called Bordetella pertussis. When an infected person coughs or sneezes, tiny droplets filled with germs are sprayed into the air and breathed into the lungs of anyone who happens to be close.

Risk factors

The whooping cough vaccine you receive as a child wears off gradually. This causes most teenagers and adults to become vulnerable to the infection during an outbreak. Infants who are younger than age 12 months who are not vaccinated or are yet to receive the recommended vaccines have the highest risk for severe complications and death.

READ ALSO: Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD): Symptoms, Causes, and Treatment



In infants — especially those under 6 months of age — complications from whooping cough are severe and may include:

  • Slowed or stopped breathing
  • Pneumonia
  • Dehydration or weight loss due to loss of appetite
  • Brain damage
  • Seizures

In most cases, complications tend to be side effects of the tireless coughing, such as:

  • Abdominal hernias
  • Bruised or cracked ribs
  • Broken blood vessels in the skin or the whites of your eyes

When to see a doctor

Call your doctor if prolonged coughing spells cause you or your child to:

  • Vomit
  • Seem to be struggling to breathe
  • Inhale with a whooping sound


The best way to prevent whooping cough is with the pertussis vaccine, which doctors often give in combination with vaccines against two other severe diseases — diphtheria and tetanus.

The vaccine consists of a series of five injections, typically given to children at these ages:

  • 2 months
  • 4 months
  • 6 months
  • 15 to 18 months
  • 4 to 6 years

Preventive medications

If you’ve been exposed to someone who has whooping cough, your doctor may recommend antibiotics to protect against infection if you:

  • Are younger than 12 months
  • Are pregnant
  • Are a health care provider
  • Have a health condition that could put you at risk of severe illness or complications
  • Live with someone who has whooping cough

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Since the signs and symptoms of whooping cough in its early stages resemble those of other common respiratory illnesses, diagnosing whooping cough can be problematic. Some doctors can diagnose whooping cough by asking about symptoms and listening to the cough. Medical tests may be needed to check the diagnosis. Such tests may include:

  • Blood tests:Blood tests may not be specific for whooping cough. A blood sample may be drawn and sent to a lab to check your white blood cell count, because white blood cells help the body fight infections. A high white blood cell count typically indicates the presence of infection or inflammation.
  • A nose or throat culture and test:This involves your doctor taking a swab or suction sample from the area where the nose and throat meet. The sample is then checked for the presence of whooping cough bacteria.
  • A chest X-ray:Your doctor may order an X-ray to check for the presence of inflammation or fluid in the lungs, which can occur when pneumonia complicates whooping cough.


Infants are hospitalized for treatment of whooping cough because the disease is more dangerous for that age group. If your child can’t keep down liquids or food, intravenous fluids may be necessary. Your child will also be isolated from others to prevent the spread of infection. However for older children, treatment can be managed at home.


Antibiotics can be used for treating whooping cough. Antibiotic kill the bacteria and help speed recovery. Exposed family members may be given preventive antibiotics.

Unfortunately, not much is available to relieve the cough. Over-the-counter cough medicines, for instance, have little effect on whooping cough and are discouraged.


Image source: Sunshine community health center

Disclaimer: The content provided on healthdiary365.com is purely informative and educational in nature and should not be interpreted as medical advice. Please use the content only in consultation with an appropriate certified medical doctor or healthcare professional.


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