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Whooping Cough (Pertussis)


What is whooping cough?

Pertussis is a respiratory infection caused by bacteria called Bordetella pertussis. It is also called whooping cough because of the characteristic sound of the cough it causes.

The illness has 3 phases. Each phase lasts about 2 weeks. The first phase usually starts with a runny nose, mild cough, and pink eyes. The second phase is an increasingly severe cough that can last 2 to 4 weeks. The cough usually comes in spasms and ends with a high-pitched whoop. Often the coughing causes a child to vomit or his or her face to turn red or blue. Coughing spasms are usually worse at night. In infants, whooping cough is a very serious illness and the baby may need to be hospitalized. The third phase is recovery. This may last another 2 to 4 weeks as the cough slowly improves.

What is the treatment?

  • Antibiotics

    The doctor will prescribe an antibiotic for your child.

  • Coughing spasms

    A humidifier in your child's room may also help. (The humidifier must be cleaned every 2 to 3 days.) Gentle suction with a bulb syringe and saline water may be used to get rid of thick secretions in the nose and throat. Never give honey to babies. Honey may cause a serious disease called botulism in children less than 1 year old. Do not give your child cough medicines unless specifically told to do so by a healthcare provider. These medicines do not to help coughing in young children and can have serious side effects.

  • Fluids

    Encourage your child to drink lots of clear fluids to prevent the mucus in the lungs from becoming sticky and loosen the mucous in the nose and throat. Fluids also help your child clear secretions and breathe easier.

  • Avoidance of cough triggers

    Keep your children away from things that trigger coughing, such as smoke, perfumes, or pollutants.

  • Care of exposed persons

    All people in close contact with your child will be asked to take an antibiotic to prevent them from getting sick or passing it to other people. This includes people in your immediate household and any day care contacts your child may have.

How can whooping cough be prevented?

It is important to have your child immunized against all preventable illnesses, including whooping cough, at regularly scheduled health checkups. A type of tetanus-diphtheria-pertussis booster called a Tdap shot is now recommended for:

  • Pre-teens at age 11 or 12 years.
  • Adults who didn't get Tdap as a pre-teen or teen should (one dose of Tdap instead of the Td booster).
  • Most women who were not previously vaccinated (one dose of Tdap after giving birth).

Getting vaccinated with Tdap is especially important for families with new infants.

Whooping cough is a very dangerous disease, especially for babies. The risk of suffering and death caused by whooping cough is far greater than the possible side effects of the shot. Complications of whooping cough can include pneumonia, seizures, and death. The risk of having neurologic problems or long term damage from the current vaccine is very low. Your healthcare provider will discuss any possible side effects with you.

There are 2 main ways to prevent the spread of whooping cough:

  • vaccinate exposed children
  • give antibiotics to anyone who has been exposed to the disease.

When should I call the doctor?

Call IMMEDIATELY if:

  • Coughing spasms cause your child's face, hands, or feet to turn blue.
  • Your child stops breathing with any coughing spells.
  • Your child's breathing becomes fast or difficult.
  • Your child has a seizure.
  • Your child is not responding to you or seems lethargic (sluggish).
  • Your child is not drinking.
  • Your child develops a fever higher than 104° F (40°C).
  • Your child starts to act very sick.

Call within 24 hours if:

  • Your child is less than 6 months old and has coughing spasms.
  • Your child has been exposed to someone with whooping cough.
  • Your child gets a fever.
  • Your child's cough lasts longer than 3 weeks.
  • You have other questions or concerns.

Written by the Section of Pediatric Emergency Medicine, The Children's Hospital, Denver.
Published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2010-11-29
Last reviewed: 2010-11-29

This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a health care professional.

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