Whooping Cough

Last Updated March 2021 | This article was created by familydoctor.org editorial staff and reviewed by Peter Rippey, MD, CAQSM

What is whooping cough?

Whooping cough is a respiratory infection. It is also known as pertussis. Whooping cough is highly contagious and is most harmful to babies.

Symptoms of whooping cough

Whooping cough begins like a cold. Symptoms can start a few days to several weeks after exposure. Early symptoms last 1 to 2 weeks and include:

  • Low fever
  • Mild cough
  • Runny nose
  • Dry or sore throat
  • Apnea (a pause in breathing or shallow breathing, often during sleep)

Your cough can get worse over time. Late-stage symptoms include:

  • Coughing fits that end in a “whooping” sound
  • Bursts of coughing that last longer
  • Vomiting after coughing
  • Getting red or blue in the face from coughing
  • Feeling exhausted after coughing
  • Increased coughing at night
  • Worsened apnea

Symptoms vary in babies and children, teenagers, and adults. For instance, babies cough less and are more likely to have apnea and turn blue. If you received the vaccine, symptoms will be milder and won’t last as long.

What causes whooping cough?

Whooping cough is caused by certain germs, or bacteria. You can get whooping cough if you breathe in these bacteria. It spreads between people when an infected person coughs or sneezes. You also can get it by touching an infected person or surface.

How is whooping cough diagnosed?

You should see your doctor if you or someone around you might have whooping cough. Your doctor will review your symptoms and listen to your cough. There are several tests to confirm whooping cough. Your doctor can swab inside your nose and/or throat. A lab will check the swab for whooping cough bacteria. Your doctor also may want to get a blood sample or take a chest X-ray.

Can whooping cough be prevented or avoided?

Vaccination is the best way to prevent whooping cough. The pertussis vaccine (DTaP, Tdap) is part of the recommended vaccine schedule for children and adults. Adults should get a pertussis booster every 5-10 years. Pregnant women and those in close contact with babies should be vaccinated. Talk to your doctor to make sure you and your family’s vaccinations are up to date.

Whooping cough treatment

Your doctor will most likely prescribe antibiotics. These will relieve your symptoms and kill the bacteria so you aren’t contagious. Infants and babies may need to stay in the hospital. If you have whooping cough, you should avoid contact with others, especially babies.

Living with whooping cough

Whooping cough can last anywhere from 1 to 6 weeks. You may continue to cough on and off, even with medicine. Over-the-counter medicines for coughing do not help with whooping cough. You should rest and drink fluids to prevent dehydration. You can try using a cool-mist humidifier or taking a warm bath or shower. These can help clear your lungs and make it easier to breathe. Avoid smoking and areas where the air is not clean. You may need to stay home from work or school. Talk to your doctor about when you can return to your regular schedule.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • How long is whooping cough contagious?
  • If my teenager hasn’t been vaccinated for whooping cough, should they get the vaccination or booster shot now?
  • If I’m pregnant, how can I protect my baby from whooping cough?