What is Whooping Cough, Causes, Symptoms, & Treatment

Whooping cough or pertussis is an extremely contagious bacterial infection that affects the respiratory system. It is caused by Bordetella pertussis, a bacterium. Patients experience severe coughing spells with a high-pitched ‘whooping’ sound during inhalation. Vomiting and breathing difficulties are common.

Causes of whooping cough

Infected individuals transmit the infection mainly when they cough or sneeze. The bacterium spreads through droplets in the air.

Transmission is also possible if you touch a surface that an infected person had previously touched, i.e., through direct contact with contaminated surfaces.

Although people of any age can contract whooping cough, it mainly affects young children and babies. People with weakened immune systems and those have never been vaccinated are particularly vulnerable.

Signs and symptoms

Signs and symptoms typically appear within 5 to 10 days after the patient has been infected. In some cases, however, it can take up to three weeks. Pertussis has three stages:

  • Catarrhal stage

This stage, which lasts from one to two weeks, is characterized by mild symptoms, including sneezing, low-grade fever, a runny nose, and a mild cough.

  • Paroxysmal stage

From one to six weeks long, this is when severe bouts of coughing begin. As the patient inhales, they produce a high-pitched ‘whoop’ sound, hence the name of the illness. There is also vomiting and exhaustion.

In some cases, this stage can go on for months.

  • Convalescent stage

Over a period of weeks, or even months, the frequency and intensity of coughing bouts gradually decrease. However, the patient is still susceptible to other respiratory infections.

The terms signs and symptoms do not have the same meaning. A sign is something the patient, doctor, family members, and others can sense, observe or detect. The ‘whooping’ sound is a sign. A symptom, on the other hand, is only felt or sensed by the patient. A headache is a symptom. If you don’t tell people about your headache, they won’t know about it.

Whooping Cough - child - Pertussis

Source: Wikipedia

Treatment for whooping cough

The doctor will prescribe antibiotics, such as azithromycin, clarithromycin, or erythromycin, to destroy the bacteria and manage symptoms.

If the infection is diagnosed early, it tends to be less severe and is typically over sooner. The patient may also need supportive care, including cough suppressants and hydration. In severe cases, hospitalization may be necessary.

The American Lung Association says the following about treatment for pertussis:

“Antibiotics are the best way to treat pertussis. It is important that a doctor is seen as soon as possible, and treatment is started early to reduce severity and duration of the illness, as well as reduce the risk of spreading the infection to others. Treatment after three weeks is unlikely to help because the bacteria are typically gone from your body despite still having symptoms.”

Whooping Cough Gif

Child With Whooping Cough. Source: Wikimedia


Complications, especially in infants and young children, may include:

  • Pneumonia, which is sometimes life-threatening.
  • Temporary cessation of breathing (apnea) in infants can lead to brain damage. It can also be fatal.
  • Rib fractures due to severe coughing spells. Rib fractures are painful, and unbearably so when coughing.
  • A lack of oxygen can lead to swelling of the brain (encephalopathy), which can cause seizures and brain damage. Encephalopathy can be fatal.
  • The infection may spread to the middle ear (otitis media).
  • Eating difficulties and severe vomiting can lead to dehydration and malnutrition.

Prevention of whooping cough

Infants and young children should be given the DTaP vaccine (diphtheria, tetanus, and acellular pertussis) in a series of five doses, which start at the age of two months. Adolescents and young adults should take the Tdap vaccine (tetanus, diphtheria, and acellular pertussis) is a booster shot.

According to Australia’s Better Health Channel:

“One in every 200 babies who contract whooping cough will die. Seek urgent medical attention if your child’s lips or skin go blue (cyanosis) or if they are having breathing difficulties associated with the coughing. Immunization is the best way to reduce the risk of whooping cough.”

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