Whooping Cough

Whooping Cough: Causes, Symptoms And Treatment

Whooping cough is medically known as pertussis. It is a highly contagious respiratory tract infection with high chances of spreading to others. The most important symptom associated with the condition is a severe hacking cough. Coughing followed by intake of breathing leads to a “whoop” sound. The high-pitch sound is the main characteristic of pertussis. Earlier, the condition mostly affected children. So, people considered it as a childhood disease.

After the development of the vaccine, the condition mainly affects young children who have not received their complete vaccination course or the teens and adults whose immunity has faded. While the condition is not serious, in small infants, pertussis increases the risk of fatal complications. So, pregnant women and people coming in contact with infants need to get the vaccination to prevent them from getting pertussis and spread it to the infant. Read ahead to know about the condition and the necessary steps you can take to prevent it from affecting yours or your child’s life.

About Whooping Cough

Whooping Cough The outbreaks of pertussis date back to the 16th century. The Middle East has the first recorded case of the disease. Scientists successfully isolated the organism in 1906. Until the development of the vaccine, whooping cough leads to a high mortality rate in children. It is the most common childhood disease with fatal results. But, the use of vaccines from the 1940s has resulted in a drastic drop in the number of cases reported around the world annually. The use of the vaccine has decreased the cases by more than 80%. So, the number of cases with people suffering from the disease is less compared to the pre-vaccine era.

Symptoms Of Whooping Cough

When a person contracts the bacteria, it can cause illness in three stages. People can suffer from symptoms based on the stage of illness you suffer.

Catarrhal Stage Of Whooping Cough

Pertussis has an incubation period of seven to ten days. It has a range of four to twenty-one days. Based on the person it infects, individuals show signs. In rare cases, people take up to 42 days to show signs. In most cases, people start showing signs within a week to ten days. The signs appear mild at first that can resemble a common cold. So, you can see the following signs during the catarrhal stage:

Paroxysmal Stage Of Whooping Cough

Individuals suffering from pertussis suffer from coughing spells that become severe after one or two weeks. During the stage, symptoms become worse. It is because thick mucus starts accumulating inside your airways. It results in uncontrollable coughing spells that last for a long time. Apart from prolonged and severe coughing attacks, you can also suffer from the following signs:

  • Suffer from extreme fatigue
  • Trigger vomiting
  • Severe coughing resulting in blue or red face
  • End the next breath of air with a high-pitched whoop sound

Some people may not develop a characteristic whoop sound. But, they suffer from persistent coughing spells. The hacking cough is the only indication that teens and adults suffer from the problem. While some infants may not cough at all. They only have trouble breathing or temporarily stop breathing. Most people tend to see a doctor during the paroxysmal stage. So, your doctor diagnoses the problem with the symptoms you exhibit during the stage.

Most people suffering pertussis can experience paroxysmal attacks frequently at night. It is estimated that people can experience 15 attacks on average every day (within 24 hours). During the paroxysmal stage, the attacks can increase in frequency during the first and second weeks of the stage. Then it remains the same for two to three weeks. After the specified period, the symptoms gradually decrease. The paroxysmal stage can last from one to six weeks. In some people, it can persist for up to ten weeks.

Convalescent Stage

Recovery is gradual in the convalescent stage. Your coughing spells become less paroxysmal and it disappears after two to three weeks. But, people observe paroxysms recurring after they suffer from respiratory infections for many after the onset of whooping cough.

See A Doctor For Pertussis

You need to see a doctor immediately when your child has prolonged coughing spells or exhibit other signs like:

  • Vomiting
  • Face turning blue or red
  • Trouble breathing properly or have noticeable pause while breathing
  • Have a whooping sound when inhaling

Causes Of Whooping Cough

Bordetella pertussis is the bacteria behind whooping cough. The bacterium is highly contagious that can spread to others when an infected person sneezes or coughs. When the germ-laden drops spray into the air, people who are near, breathe it into the lungs.

Risk Factors Of Pertussis

Is everyone at risk of pertussis? The vaccine you receive for whooping cough wears off when you reach teen years. So, teenagers and adults are susceptible to infection when an outbreak occurs. Infants who are younger than one year who have not received a vaccination or are yet to receive the full set of recommended vaccination face a higher risk of severe complications due to pertussis. Without early medical intervention, infants face death.

Transmission Of Whopping Cough

Pertussis is a contagious disease, which only affects humans. So, it only transmits from one person to another. Infected individuals transmit the bacteria to others when they cough or sneeze. Spending a lot of time or share breathing space with infected people can also put you at risk of the disease. Infants who suffer from pertussis get the disease from their older siblings, their parents, or caregivers. Some people may not know they have the disease, which increases the risk of spreading it to vulnerable people like infants. People who have the infection remain contagious up to two weeks after the coughing starts. With medical assistance, you can shorten the amount of contagious period. Antibiotics are effective in shortening the duration.

With the introduction of the pertussis vaccine, the cases of whooping cough have reduced drastically. But, remember while vaccines can effectively prevent the condition, it does not guarantee 100% protection. When pertussis circulates in your community, even a vaccinated person can face the risk of catching the disease irrespective of the age. But, people who have received the pertussis vaccine suffer only mild complications due to the infection even when they get sick.

Complications Due To Pertussis

While infants suffer from severe, life-threatening complications due to pertussis, teens and adults also suffer from issues. Compared to infants, the severity of complications is usually less serious. People who have received vaccination in infancy with pertussis vaccine only suffer from mild complications. In most people, the cough itself causes complications. The complications are:

  • Severe coughing fits makes it impossible to eat food properly, resulting in weight loss.
  • Loss of bladder control due to violent coughing attacks.
  • Severe coughing can also result in fracturing, cracking or bruising of ribs.
  • Some people pass out during the coughing spells.
  • Abdominal hernias
  • Broken blood vessels in the whites of the eyes or the skin

Most teens and adults often recover from pertussis without any complications. Strenuous coughing can lead to complications. So, they need to see a doctor immediately to get the necessary medical assistance.

Complication In Infants Due To Whooping Cough

In infants, especially those who are under six months of age can suffer from severe complications. So, the complications include:

  • Slowed or stopped breathing
  • Pneumonia
  • Seizures
  • Feeding difficulties resulting in weight loss or dehydration
  • Brain damage

Infants and toddlers are at high risk of complications due to violent coughing attacks. So, they need good treatment in a hospital. Since whooping cough can result in life-threatening complications, young infants need to get immediate medical attention.

Diagnosing Pertussis

Pertussis is difficult to diagnose in its early stages as the signs and symptoms resemble common respiratory illnesses. So, the symptoms mimic that of flu, cold or bronchitis. When you suspect the condition, you need to see a doctor. The doctor performs the following diagnostic tests to detect the problem conclusively:

Medical History

The doctor diagnoses the condition by asking the question regarding the signs and symptoms you suffer. The doctor listens to the cough to detect the issue. To confirm the diagnosis, you need to undergo other tests.

Culture Test

The doctor suggests nose or throat culture as well as tests. The doctor takes a sample using swab or suction from your nasopharynx (where the nose and throat meet). The sample is tested in the laboratory to check the evidence for the presence of pertussis bacteria.

Blood Tests

You need to provide a sample of your blood to the lab. It is tested to check the white blood cells count. The blood tests helps detect the presence of infection in your body. It is because white blood cells help the body fight infections like pertussis. The high white blood cell count indicated the presence of inflammation or infection. It is a general test and not specific to pertussis.

A Chest X-ray

A Chest X-ray

Your doctor orders an x-ray to get a detailed image of the lungs. It helps check for the presence of fluid accumulation or inflammation in the lungs. Such issues occur when pneumonia complications respiratory infections and pertussis.

Treatment To Manage Whooping Cough

Depending on the age of the person with pertussis, the doctor decides treatments. Infants need immediate treatment to prevent dangerous complications. See a doctor for necessary advice and instructions on how to deal with the problem:

Treatment For Infants

Infants need hospitalization to get the necessary treatment as early as possible as pertussis is dangerous for the age group. Children who are vomiting frequently and find it difficult to keep fluids or food need intravenous fluids. The child needs isolation from others to prevent it from spreading.

Treatment For Older Children And Adults

In most cases, doctors suggest getting necessary treatment at home for older children and adults. Doctors suggest taking antibiotics to kill the bacteria and ensure a speedy recovery. The doctor suggests providing preventive antibiotics to exposed family members to avoid the condition. No medication can relieve cough. While over-the-counter medications offer relief to other types of coughing attacks, it offers little effect on pertussis. So, doctors discourage the use of OTC medications.

Lifestyle And Home Remedies To Manage Whooping Cough

If you suffer from coughing spells, apart from following your doctor’s orders, you can take some steps at home. These are simple steps that will help manage the coughing spells.

Get Rest

You need to relax and take it easy for a few days when you suffer from pertussis. Get plenty of rest in a quiet, cool, and dark place like your bedroom. You can relax and rest better without any interruptions.

Drink Plenty Of Fluids

It is important to hydrate your body with enough fluids. So try to drink eight to twelve glasses of water. You can also try taking soups and juices to keep the water balance in your body. Parents need to watch their children for signs of dehydration as persistent coughing can cause vomiting and less intake of fluids. So, parents need to see a doctor immediately to treat their child when they notice signs of dehydration like:

  • Crying without tears
  • Dry lips
  • Infrequent urination

Eat Smaller Meals

Some people suffer from vomiting due to pertussis. So, you need to eat smaller portions of food more frequently compared to one large meal to avoid puking.

Clean The Air

You need to keep your home air clean and clear from irritants that can trigger pertussis. Irritants like smoke from cigarette/tobacco or fumes from fireplaces can lead to coughing spells. So, try to reduce irritants triggering such issues.

Avoid Transmission

You have to prevent transmission of whooping cough to others. So, you have to cover your mouth with the crook of your elbows while coughing. If using your hands to cover the mouth, then wash your hands with soap and water to avoid spreading the bacteria. People who are around other people need to use a mask.

Home Remedies For Whooping Cough

You can also try some home remedies with the ingredients available in your home to manage the coughing spells. Here are some of the easy home remedies to manage the severity of the coughing spells:

Hot Liquids With Honey And Lemon

Hot Liquids With Honey And Lemon

You can ease coughing spells by drinking hot beverages that contain honey and lemon. These potent ingredients offer soothing effects to your throat for a short time. You can use plain hot water or your favorite flavor tea. Just add honey and lemon to taste. Unlike other medications, you can have the home remedy as often as you like. But, never give honey to children below one year. It will only prove fatal. So use honey only for adults.

Use Peppermint Oil

Use Peppermint Oil

Peppermint oil has antiseptic, antibacterial, and antispasmodic properties. So, it can offer relief from whooping cough as well as its symptoms. But, you need to mix peppermint oil with carrier oils like coconut oil or olive oil. Mix peppermint oil with a carrier oil of your choice and apply the mixture on your chest as well as back to get relief.

Hot Shower For Whooping Cough

Most people suffering from cold or cough find relief after they take a hot shower. Ever wonder why? It is because the humid air from the hot shower reduces irritation. It also breaks some of the congestion. So, you can try the home remedy with a steamy bathroom. Another viable option is to use a humidifier to offer relief from coughing spells.

Take Garlic

Garlic is not just a flavorful component in your cooking, it also has antibacterial properties. It contains allicin, which can combat the bacteria causing your coughing spells. So, you can take garlic supplements or chew a clove of raw garlic to get relief.

Sucking On Hard Candy

Children suffering from pertussis may not like to use a humidifier or other home remedies. In such a case, you can offer them a hard candy to suck. Choose the flavor they like to ease the constant tickle of a cough. Adults can try sucking on a cough drop or lozenge to get relief.

Preventing Whooping Cough

Is it possible to prevent pertussis? Yes, it is. You have some of the most effective options to avoid the problem from affecting your child’s life.

Pertussis Vaccination

Pertussis Vaccination

The most effective and efficient method to avoid whooping cough is to get the pertussis vaccine. The doctors often give a combination of diphtheria as well as tetanus along with pertussis. Most doctors suggest giving the vaccine to the child in their infancy. The vaccination has a series of five injections, which parents need to provide their child at the following ages:

  • Two months
  • Four months
  • Six months
  • Fifteen to Eighteen months
  • Four to Six years

Pertussis Vaccine Side Effects

Most parents fail to get the vaccination for their children fearing severe side effects. But, the pertussis vaccine has only mild side effects. So, parents need to make an effort to ensure their child gets the vaccination. The possible side effects associated with the vaccines are:

  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Crankiness
  • Fatigue
  • Soreness at the injection site

Since the above-mention side effects can go away in a short time, you can feel no fear.

Booster Shots

The vaccine offers effects for a certain period. So, when the child reaches adolescence, they need to get booster shots. Young adults and adults have to follow the instructions to ensure they are safe from the coughing spells due to bacterial attack:


Children who get a vaccine can see the effects waning by 11 years of age. So, the doctor recommends taking a booster shot at that age. It will provide protection to the child against coughing spells, tetanus, and diphtheria.


Adults can take vaccines of varieties that come with ten-year diphtheria and tetanus shots with added protection from pertussis. This vaccination is effective for adults who have high chances of transmitting pertussis to infants.

Some varieties of every-10-year tetanus and diphtheria vaccine also include protection against whooping cough (pertussis). This vaccine will also reduce the risk of transmitting whooping cough to infants.

Pregnant Women

Many health professionals recommend pregnant women to get the vaccination. So, women in their third trimester (26 weeks to 36 weeks) need to receive pertussis vaccination. It is also essential to offer the same level of protection to the newborn during the first few months of their life.

Preventive Medications

People who are at risk of infection or have a family member suffering from whooping cough, then the doctor or the local health department suggests taking preventive antibiotics. These medications help prevent any disease caused by bacteria. Taking the medication helps prevent the spread of the disease. People outside the household of infected people also need preventive antibiotic medication. Your doctor suggests taking antibiotics when you are exposed to pertussis infected person to prevent infection when you are:

  • A healthcare worker coming in contact with people of low immunity
  • Pregnant
  • A child who is younger than twelve months of age
  • Suffering from a health condition putting you at risk of severe complications or illness due to having a weak immune system or respiratory issues like asthma
  • Living with a person who suffers from pertussis
  • Living with someone who faces a high risk of developing complications or illness, severe in nature due to pertussis infection

Maintain Hygiene

With coronavirus causing destruction around the world, people are now cautious regarding personal hygiene. Like other respiratory illnesses, pertussis spreads from one person to another when the droplets from an infected person carry to others when they cough or sneeze. People who come in close contact with the infected person has high chances of breathing the bacteria. So, you need to practice good hygiene to avoid spreading the illness. Try to practice good hygiene by following the steps:

  • Cover your nose and mouth with a tissue when you sneeze or cough.
  • Dispose of the used tissue in the waste bin.
  • If you have no tissue, the cough or sneeze into your elbow crook or upper sleeve and not your hands.
  • Use a face mask whenever you go out.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water for at least twenty seconds.
  • You have to use a sanitizer with 60% alcohol (alcohol-based hand rub) if you have no soap and water available.


Whooping cough is a common problem affecting mostly children and adults. But, the condition is serious for infants as they can face severe complications. So, they need careful monitoring to avoid adverse results. In older children and adults, with proper care and rest, it is possible to deal with the condition. So, never ignore the coughing spells and get proper assistance to avoid issues.

View Article Sources
  • https://www.healthline.com/health/pertussis
  • https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/whooping-cough/symptoms-causes/syc-20378973
  • https://www.cdc.gov/pertussis/about/signs-symptoms.html

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