Whooping Cough: Symptoms, Complications, Treatment and Prevention

November 12, 2012

Whooping Cough: Symptoms, Complications, Treatment and Prevention

Whooping cough or pertussis is of the most contagious diseases known in North America. Although people of any age can catch it, it is most commonly found in small children and babies. This can quickly kill a small child so it is vital that they get regular vaccinations against pertussis. It does not 100% guarantee that a child will never catch whooping cough, but it greatly reduces its chance of catching it. Adults have a much better chance of surviving pertussis than do children.

According to the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), pertussis outbreaks occur every three to five years. Since the disease is so contagious, many people in a family or community quickly get sick, especially if they have not been recently vaccinated. In 2010, there were 27, 550 cases of whooping cough in America, but the CDC estimates that thousands more went unreported that year due to rising health care costs.


For the first 7 to 14 days after being infected with the Bordatella pertussis bacterium, an infected person will appear to just have the common cold. These symptoms include sneezing, fever runny nose or a congested nose and mild, intermittent coughing.

After this first phase, symptoms change. The coughing becomes more pronounced and so violent that it can crack ribs or leave a patient out of breath. In children and adults, the coughing makes the characteristic “WHOOP! WHOOP!” sound that gave whooping cough its name. For some patients, their throats can become so sore that it hurts to breathe. Some patients also become very congested.

But babies often do not make this noise although they do develop a persistent cough. They develop sleep apnea, which means their breath is temporarily cut off while they sleep.


Because the first symptoms of whooping cough are identical to that of the common cold, the disease has time to progress before it is discovered and diagnosed. In the meantime, these highly contagious people are still roaming the community. Teenagers and adults are often able to survive and attack of whooping cough, but infants and babies can die.

In babies and infants and rarely adults, whooping cough soon degenerates into dangerous pneumonia. The CDC estimates that of every 5 young children that catch pertussis, one will develop pneumonia. Because of the coughing and other symptoms, babies lose appetite and often lose weight or stop growing. Some babies and very young children develop seizures. If the seizures become bad enough, then there is a high risk of developing permanent brain damage.


In order to get proper treatment, a patient suspected of having pertrussis needs to be diagnosed. The quickest diagnosis is a throat culture test, where a sterile cotton swab rubs against the back of the throat. It is then sent to a lab to check for the presence of Bordatella pertrussis. Treatment is usually a round of antibiotics and sometimes intravenous fluids to prevent dehydration. Hospitalization may be required, especially for babies.

The best way to prevent pertussis is with regular vaccinations. Babies need a series of shots every two months for six months and then again about 16 months of age. Children need a booster called a Tdap when they are about 5 and another at 12. Any adult over age 65 that comes into constant contact with children need annual vaccines.

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