What Is Whooping Cough (Pertussis)?

Doctor listening to boy with infection
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What Is Pertussis (Whooping Cough)?

Pertussis, or whooping cough, is a bacterial infection that causes a person to have severe coughing fits. The cough can be so bad that it may cause the person to choke or vomit. The name “whooping cough” comes from the sound that is made when a breath is taken after a coughing spell.

What Are the Symptoms?

Pertussis usually begins with symptoms similar to those of a common cold, such as runny nose, congestion, sneezing, watery eyes and mild fevers.

Unlike the common cold which typically lasts a week to 10 days, these symptoms will last for about two weeks in individuals with pertussis who have not been vaccinated. These symptoms may not last as long in people who have been vaccinated.

Next, a dry hacking cough will start and will progress to prolonged coughing spasms. These coughing spasms can be so violent that it is difficult for the person to catch their breath and vomiting may occur. Coughing spells are often followed by a loud “whoop” noise made when the person finally catches their breath. Typically, this stage lasts anywhere between 2 to 6 weeks.

Potential complications of pertussis include pneumonia, emphysema, weight loss (due to poor feeding), vomiting, bleeding in the brain (cerebral hemorrhage), seizures and -- rarely -- infection of the lining of the brain (encephalitis).

How Does it Affect Children?

Pertussis is most severe in infants, especially those under three months of age.

Children under 3 months who have pertussis will be hospitalized and many between 3 to 6 months will be hospitalized as well. In young infants, the “whooping” sound may not be as obvious or may not be heard at all. However, the disease is more serious in young children because the child can actually suffocate from the coughing fits.

Other complications in infants include seizures, ear infections and pneumonia.

How Is Pertussis Treated?

Because pertussis is a bacterial infection, it is treated with antibiotics. It is also highly contagious and family members of those with a confirmed case of pertussis may be treated with antibiotics as well. Anyone diagnosed with pertussis should be isolated for five days after starting antibiotics and exposure to infants younger than 3 months should be avoided.

Pertussis was once prevalent in the United States and was one of the leading causes of death among young children. However, due to good immunization practices, it is now rare. Unfortunately, cases of pertussis are on the rise once again. It is thought that the immunizations given during childhood may not provide immunity for longer than 10 years, so new recommendations about adults receiving a booster vaccine have been added.

The Bottom Line

Pertussis is much less common than it once was, but that doesn’t mean it is gone. Knowing the symptoms and how to prevent the illness may help save yourself or a loved one in the future. It is also important to know that the symptoms may not always be the same for older children and adults who have been vaccinated.

Anytime you have a cough or other symptoms that seem especially severe or do not go away within a few days, it is important contact your healthcare provider.


”Pertussis (Whooping Cough).” Medical Library, Excerpted from Complete Medical Encyclopedia 2003. American Medical Association. 15 April 08.

”Whooping Cough.” Medical Encyclopedia 02 April 08. National Institutes of Health. 15 April 08.

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