Whooping Cough: Causes, Signs, Treatment & Prevention

Whooping cough causes, symptoms, treatment and prevention

Whooping cough also called pertussis is a highly contagious bacterial infection of the lungs and airways. Symptoms include fever and long periods of coughing that sound like a ‘whoop’. Whooping cough can affect people of all ages but it is more serious for babies. Whooping cough causes severe coughing spells, which can sometimes end in a “whooping” sound when the child breathes in.

It mainly affects babies younger than 6 months old who aren’t yet immunized. Babies are at greatest risk of harm from whooping cough. Because, they have soft airways that are vulnerable to damage from the severe coughing bouts.

Besides, kids 11 to 18 years old whose immunity has started to fade and adults, can still get whooping cough. However, it is not as critically dangerous as it is in small babies. But it is still a distressing condition with the cough lasting up to 3 months.

What causes whooping cough?

Whooping cough is caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis. Although sometimes other bacteria can cause a pertussis-like syndrome. Bacteria enter the air passages and damage the lining of the windpipe and the main air passages in the lungs. The inflamed airways produce more mucus which then causes the irritating cough. The bacteria are passed from person to person by the infected mucus during coughing or sneezing.


Pertussis spreads from person to person. People with pertussis usually spread the disease to another person by coughing or sneezing. It can also be spread when spending a lot of time near one another where you share breathing space. Many babies who get pertussis are infected by older siblings, parents, or caregivers who might not even know they have the disease.

Signs and symptoms of whooping cough

Symptoms of pertussis usually develop within 5 to 10 days after infection occurs. But, sometimes pertussis symptoms do not develop for as long as 3 weeks. Whooping cough can last up to 3 months and usually runs in 3 stages.

Stage 1

The disease usually starts with cold-like symptoms and maybe a mild cough or fever. In babies, the cough can be minimal or not even there. Babies may have a symptom known as “apnea.” Apnea is a pause in the child’s breathing pattern. Early symptoms can last for 1 to 2 weeks and usually include:

It is highly contagious at this stage, but difficult to diagnose, as whooping cough can be mistaken for bronchitis.

Stage 2

Begins after 1 or 2 weeks when the coughing gets worse.

  • The coughing bouts often end in a high-pitched whooping sound as you take a breath.
  • Coughing spells may produce plenty of mucus, and choking on the mucus can cause vomiting.
  • The typical ‘whoop’ sound may not happen in very young children or adults with whooping cough. The coughing spells can cause a child to stop breathing, or turn blue.
  • Complications such as pneumonia or middle ear infections (glue ear) are more likely to happen at this stage.

Stage 3

The recovery stage. The third stage is when the coughing and vomiting starts to subside.

  • Recovery is slow. The cough can last for months, especially in adults, before it starts getting better.
  • Coughing lessens but may still happen at times.
  • Sometimes, the coughing can start again months later if the child develops an upper respiratory tract infection.

Diagnosis of pertussis

Your doctor can diagnose whooping cough by:

  • checking your symptoms
  • medical history including immunisation status
  • asking whether you may have been in contact with someone who has whooping cough
  • swabbing the back of your nose or throat
  • blood test.

Treatment of whooping cough

Most cases of whooping cough can be treated at home, but it depends on how severe the whooping cough symptoms are. Others will need treatment in hospital. Young babies less than 6 months may need hospitalization. An antibiotic (such as azithromycin, clarithromycin or sulfamethoxazole)  will be prescribed if it is less than 3 weeks since the onset of illness. This is primarily to reduce the risk of transmission and may have little impact on the course of the disease. Thus in people who are infectious for 3 weeks after the onset of cough, or until completion 5 days of appropriate antibiotics.

People who have been in close contact with someone with whooping cough, such as members of the same household, are at increased risk of developing the infection. Therefore, antibiotics for close contacts who are at higher risk themselves. Such as children under 6 months, people with immunosuppression or who are at risk of transmitting the disease to those who are at high risk such as childcare workers or healthcare staff.

What self-care can I do if my child has whooping cough?

Home treatment of mild cases includes:

  • Comfort, rest and plenty of cuddles for young children will help them recover.
  • Small healthy meals and fluids can be given to your child.
  • Steam in the bedroom or sitting your child on your knee in a steamy bathroom may give some temporary relief.

Make sure you and your child get as much rest as you can. Caring for your child with whooping cough is hard work, and the cough is often worse at night.

Treating the cough

There is no treatment for whooping cough. Cough medicine will not ease the coughing (and is not ideal for young children). The following may help:

  • sipping warm drinks can be soothing and may help break the coughing spasm
  • reducing dry air, by using a humidifier in the bedroom may help (but you should clean it every 2 or 3 days)
  • using saline nose drops to help remove thick mucus
  • drinking lots of clear fluids
  • avoiding coughing triggers, such as cigarette smoke, perfumes or pollutants.

Paracetamol may be helpful if your child is in pain from coughing. Ensure you follow directions and measure children’s doses accurately. Never give more than the recommended dose. If unsure, ask your doctor or pharmacist for advice.

Stopping the infection spreading

If you or your child are taking antibiotics for whooping cough, you need to be careful not to spread the infection to others.

  • Stay away from nursery, school or work until 48 hours from the start of antibiotic treatment or three weeks after the coughing bouts started (whichever is sooner).
  • Cover your or your child’s mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing and sneezing.
  • Dispose of used tissues immediately.
  • Wash your and your child’s hands regularly with soap and water.


The best way to prevent pertussis (whooping cough) among babies, children, teens, and adults is vaccination. Also, keep babies and other people at high risk for pertussis complications away from infected people.

About felclinic 593 Articles
Felix Ntifo is a Registered General Nurse who has so much passion to improve health care delivery. He founded FelClinic with the hope of making health information accessible to everyone who may not come in contact with him personally. "At felclinic.com we are very passionate about health and well-being of everyone. Our team is made up of professional doctors, nurses, midwives and lab technicians."

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