Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, is a highly contagious respiratory infection caused by the Bordetella pertussis bacterium. It is transmitted through the air when a person with the infection coughs or sneezes.

It’s called whooping cough because of the distinct "whoop" sound a person makes when they breathe in after coughing. Individuals with whooping cough often experience severe, violent coughing fits.

Though whooping cough can affect anyone, it can be particularly dangerous for babies who aren’t vaccinated against pertussis. Whooping cough can cause seizures, brain damage, pneumonia, or even death in infants. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that people of all ages get vaccinated against pertussis.

This article will explain everything you need to know about whooping cough, including its symptoms, causes, complications, and treatment options.  

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What Is Whooping Cough?

Whooping cough is a bacterial infection, which means you can get it when you’re exposed to certain germs. The type of bacterium that causes whooping cough is called Bordetella pertussis.

How Many People Get Whooping Cough?

There are about 24.1 million cases of whooping cough and 160,700 deaths from it worldwide per year.



There are three stages of whooping cough, which are categorized based on symptoms:

  • Stage 1: This is the earliest stage and can last one to two weeks. Symptoms may include a mild cough, runny nose, and low fever.
  • Stage 2: The second stage may last from one to 10 weeks. It’s characterized by severe coughing fits, trouble breathing, and a cough that ends with a whooping sound when breathing. Additionally, some individuals may vomit during or after a coughing episode.
  • Stage 3: The third stage is known as the recovery stage, but it can last weeks to months. The cough usually decreases during this period but may continue occasionally and can return later.

Whooping Cough vs. the Common Cold

Unlike a cold, people who have pertussis can have a cough that persists for weeks or months.

Whooping Cough Symptoms

Symptoms of whooping cough typically develop within five to 10 days after a person comes in contact with the Bordetella pertussis bacterium. However, symptoms sometimes don’t crop up for as long as three weeks or so.

At first, the signs of whooping cough may look like nothing more than the common cold. However, as the infection progresses, it can cause its signature symptoms, such as:

  • Trouble breathing
  • Violent coughing fits
  • A high-pitched “whooping” sound after a coughing episode
  • Tiredness or exhaustion after coughing
  • Vomiting during or after coughing
  • Apnea (a pause in breathing)

Whooping Cough Symptoms in Babies

Many babies with whooping cough don’t have a cough at all. Instead, they may struggle to breathe and turn blue. If your baby experiences these symptoms, seek medical care immediately.

What Causes Whooping Cough?

Whooping cough is caused by the spread of the Bordetella pertussis bacterium. It’s usually transmitted by sneezing, coughing, or breathing very close to a person with the infection. Sometimes, it can spread if you touch an infected surface and then rub your mouth, eyes, or nose.

How Long Are you Contagious With Whooping Cough?

Typically, you’re considered contagious with whooping cough for about two weeks after you start coughing. If you take antibiotics, you may not be contagious for as long.

How Is Whooping Cough Diagnosed?

To help diagnose whooping cough, your health provider may perform:

  • A history of symptoms and a physical exam
  • A lab test to analyze the mucus in the back of your throat (collected with a nasal swab or saline from a syringe) to determine if it contains the bacteria
  • A blood test
  • A chest X-ray

Whooping Cough Treatment

Whooping cough is typically treated with antibiotics. Starting treatment before coughing fits begin can lessen the severity of the illness and help prevent the transmission of the infection to others.

If you’ve had whooping cough for more than three weeks, antibiotics are not expected to help your condition because your body has likely already rid itself of the harmful bacteria. Pertussis bacteria generally die off naturally after this time.

Common Antibiotics

Some antibiotics that commonly treat whooping cough include:

  • Bactrim or Septra (trimethoprim-sulfamethoxazole)
  • Biaxin (clarithromycin)
  • Erythrocin (erythromycin)
  • Zithromax (azithromycin)

Risk Factors

Anyone who comes into contact with an individual who has a whooping cough infection is at risk of contracting the illness. However, some groups that have a greater chance of developing pertussis include:

  • Unvaccinated individuals of all ages
  • Infants who aren’t vaccinated or haven’t received their full set of vaccinations
  • Children who haven't received their whooping cough booster vaccination
  • Adults or teens whose vaccinations have worn off

Complications With Whooping Cough

Your risk of developing serious complications from whooping cough typically depends on your age.


Babies under 6 months and young children have a higher risk of experiencing more serious problems resulting from whooping cough. More than half of babies younger than age 1 who develop whooping cough are hospitalized.

Some possible complications that babies and children experience include:

  • Apnea
  • Dehydration
  • Pneumonia (lung infection)
  • Seizures (episodes of uncontrolled electrical activity in the brain)
  • Kidney issues
  • Brain damage, which is caused by a lack of oxygen to the brain
  • Death

Death Is Not a Common Complication

About 1% of babies younger than age 1 who are treated in a hospital with whooping cough will die.

Older Children and Adults

Older children and adults are generally less severely affected by whooping cough, but they can still develop issues caused by severe coughing, such as: 

  • Nosebleeds
  • Hernias
  • Bruised ribs
  • Weight loss

Though complications are usually less serious in older children and adults, they may sometimes be severe and require hospitalization. Adults with underlying medical conditions may be at an increased risk of developing a more severe case of whooping cough.

The Whooping Cough Vaccine and Prevention

The best way to protect yourself against whooping cough is to get vaccinated. DTaP and Tdap vaccinations help prevent whooping cough, tetanus, and diphtheria.

Babies require three shots of DTap to build protection against diphtheria, tetanus, and whooping cough. Young children should receive two booster shots to maintain protection.

The CDC recommends vaccinations at the following ages for babies and children:

  • 2 months
  • 4 months
  • 6 months
  • 15–18 months
  • 4–6 years

When it comes to teens and adults, the CDC recommends:

  • Preteens and teens should get one shot of Tdap between ages 11 and 12.
  • Pregnant people should get Tdap during their early third trimester.
  • Adults who never received Tdap should get a shot, followed by a Td (tetanus) or Tdap shot every 10 years.

Vaccine Side Effects

Vaccines for whooping cough are generally considered safe. Some possible side effects include:

  • Injection site reactions, such as swelling, pain, redness, or soreness
  • Fever
  • Fussiness in babies
  • Tiredness
  • Loss of appetite
  • Vomiting

Serious reactions, such as seizures, high fever, or persistent crying can happen but aren’t common. Rarely, older children who receive their fourth or fifth vaccine dose experience swelling of an entire arm or leg.

Good Hygiene Protects Against Whooping Cough

Good hygiene can help prevent the transmission of bacteria that cause whooping cough and other illnesses. The CDC recommends that you:

  • Cover your mouth with a tissue when you sneeze or cough and discard the tissue right away.
  • Cough or sneeze into your arm sleeve or elbow if you don’t have a tissue.
  • Wash hands frequently with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
  • Use hand sanitizer if soap isn’t available.

Preventive Medications

Sometimes, healthcare providers will recommend preventive antibiotics for people who are exposed to whooping cough or are at a high risk of developing a severe infection. However, the CDC warns that antibiotics should only be prescribed when necessary to protect against overuse, antibiotic resistance, and possible side effects.

When to Contact a Healthcare Provider

You should contact a healthcare provider if you think you or your child has whooping cough or was exposed to someone with the infection. 

It’s especially important to seek medical care if your child:

  • Has a high fever
  • Vomits after coughing
  • Makes a whooping sound after coughing spells
  • Seems sluggish or weak
  • Shows signs of dehydration, such as dark urine, dry eyes, or a dry mouth
  • Doesn’t want to eat or can’t keep liquids down

When to Seek Immediate Care

Call 911 or go to the emergency room immediately if your child stops breathing, turns blue, or has a seizure.


Whooping cough is a contagious bacterial infection that can affect anyone but is more serious in babies and unvaccinated individuals. If your healthcare provider confirms you have the infection, they may prescribe an antibiotic.

The best way to prevent whooping cough is to get your recommended vaccinations. Proper hygiene can also help reduce the risk of transmission.

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