Whooping cough (pertussis) is a highly contagious respiratory tract infection. In advanced stages, it's marked a severe, hacking cough followed by a high-pitched intake of breath that sounds like "whoop."
In the first half of the 20th century, whooping cough was a leading cause of childhood illness and death in the United States. But after the introduction of a vaccine, the number of cases gradually declined, reaching a low in the mid-1970s.
Since then, however, the incidence of whooping cough has been increasing, primarily among children too young to have completed the full course of vaccinations and teenagers and adults whose immunity has faded.
Once you become infected with whooping cough, it takes three to 12 days for signs and symptoms to appear. They're usually mild at first and resemble those of a common cold:
After a week or two, signs and symptoms worsen. Severe and prolonged coughing attacks may:
However, many people — particularly infants, adolescents and adults — don't develop the characteristic whoop. Sometimes, a persistent hacking cough is the only sign that an adolescent or adult has whooping cough.
When to see a doctor
Whooping cough is caused by bacteria. When an infected person coughs or sneezes, tiny germ-laden droplets are sprayed into the air and breathed into the lungs of anyone who happens to be nearby.
Once inside your airways, the bacteria multiply and produce toxins that interfere with your respiratory tract's ability to sweep away germs. Thick mucus accumulates inside your airways, causing uncontrollable coughing.
The bacteria also cause inflammation that narrows breathing tubes in your lungs. This narrowing leaves you gasping for air — sucking in air with a high-pitched "whoop" — after a fit of coughing.
Your lungs draw air through your nose, mouth and throat into the tube-shaped trachea (windpipe), which passes into your chest cavity. At the level of your breastbone, your trachea splits into two ...
Whooping cough is thought to be on the rise for two main reasons. The whooping cough vaccine you receive as a child eventually wears off, leaving most teenagers and adults susceptible to the infection during an outbreak — and there continue to be regular outbreaks. In addition, children aren't fully immune to whooping cough until they've received at least three shots, leaving those 6 months and younger at greatest risk of contracting the infection.
Most people recover from whooping cough with no problems. When complications occur, they tend to be side effects of the strenuous coughing, such as:
Because infants and toddlers are at greatest risk of complications from whooping cough, they're more likely to need treatment in a hospital. Complications can be life-threatening for infants less than 6 months old.
Preparing for your appointment
If you think you or your child has whooping cough, make an appointment with your family doctor or pediatrician. Severe symptoms may warrant a visit to an urgent care center or a hospital's emergency department.
What you can do
What to expect from your doctor
Tests and diagnosis
Diagnosing whooping cough in its early stages can be difficult because the signs and symptoms resemble those of other common respiratory illnesses, such as a cold, the flu or bronchitis.
Sometimes, doctors can diagnose whooping cough simply by asking about symptoms and listening to the cough. Medical tests may be needed to confirm the diagnosis. Such tests may include:
Treatments and drugs
Infants are typically hospitalized for treatment, because whooping cough is more dangerous for that age group. If your child can't keep down liquids or food, intravenous fluids may be necessary. In some cases, prescription sedatives will help your child rest. Your child will also be isolated from others to prevent the infection from spreading.
Treatment for older children and adults usually can be managed at home.
Lifestyle and home remedies
The following tips on dealing with coughing spells apply to anyone being treated for whooping cough at home:
The best way to prevent whooping cough is with the pertussis vaccine, which doctors often give in combination with vaccines against two other serious diseases, diphtheria and tetanus. Doctors recommend beginning vaccination during infancy.
The vaccine consists of a series of five injections, typically given to children at these ages:
Vaccine side effects
Last Updated: 2009-12-22
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