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Whooping Cough (Pertussis)

What is whooping cough?

Whooping cough is a lung infection. It is called whooping cough because of the whooping sound of a child’s breathing after several coughs. It is also called pertussis.

Adults can usually recover from whooping cough, but it is a very dangerous disease for babies. Complications of whooping cough can include pneumonia, seizures, and death.

What is the cause?

Whooping cough is caused by bacteria called Bordetella pertussis. Children can get infected by breathing in the bacteria from someone who is sneezing or coughing. When teens or adults have whooping cough, it’s usually a mild coldlike illness, so they don’t know they are carrying the bacteria and passing it on to babies and children.

What are the symptoms?

The first symptoms are usually a runny nose, mild cough, and pink eyes. The cough may linger for a few weeks. The younger the person, the more severe the infection is likely to be. The cough can get worse and worse. It may cause vomiting. The face may turn red or blue. Coughing spells are usually worse at night. Babies may have spells of not breathing.

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your child’s symptoms and medical history and examine your child. Your provider may get a sample of mucus from your child’s nose to test for bacteria.

How is it treated?

Your child’s healthcare provider will prescribe antibiotic medicine to kill the bacteria causing the infection.

Because whooping cough is a very serious illness for babies, they may need to stay at the hospital for treatment.

Everyone in close contact with your child will be asked to take an antibiotic to keep them from getting sick or passing the bacteria to others. This includes the people your child lives with.

How can I help take care of my child?

  • If the air in your child’s bedroom is dry, a cool-mist humidifier can moisten the air and help make breathing easier. Be sure to follow the manufacturer's instructions for cleaning the humidifier often so that bacteria and mold cannot grow. You can also try running hot water in the shower or bathtub to steam up the bathroom. If your child is coughing hard or having trouble breathing, have your child sit in the steamy bathroom for 10 to 15 minutes.
  • Gentle suction with a bulb syringe and saline water may be used to get rid of thick secretions in the nose and throat.
  • Don’t give your child cough medicines unless specifically told to do so by your child’s healthcare provider. These medicines do not to help coughing in young children and can have serious side effects. Never give honey to babies. Honey may cause a serious disease called botulism in children less than 1 year old.
  • Encourage your child to drink lots of plenty of liquids to help loosen mucus and make it easier to cough it up. Fluids can also help your child breathe easier.
  • Make sure your child gets plenty of rest.
  • Keep your child away from things that trigger coughing, such as smoke, perfumes, or pollutants.
  • Follow your child’s healthcare provider's instructions. Ask your provider:
    • How and when you will hear your child’s test results
    • How long it will take for your child to recover
    • What activities your child should avoid and when your child can return to normal activities
    • How to take care of your child at home
    • What symptoms or problems you should watch for and what to do if your child has them
  • Make sure you know when your child should come back for a checkup.

How can I help prevent whooping cough?

The pertussis vaccine protects against whooping cough and is included in children’s tetanus shots, starting at 2 months of age. Babies should get three pertussis shots during their first year of life, followed by booster shots as they get older.

Whooping cough is a very dangerous disease, especially for babies. The risk of suffering and death caused by whooping cough is far greater than the possible side effects of the shot. Complications of whooping cough can include pneumonia, seizures, and death. The risk of having problems or long-term damage from the pertussis vaccine is very low. Your child’s healthcare provider will discuss any possible side effects with you.

Teens and adults should get a new type of tetanus-diphtheria-pertussis booster called a Tdap shot, starting at age 11 or 12. Adults should get a Tdap shot once even if they are not yet due for their 10-year tetanus update. This will “boost” any protection they still have from their childhood vaccinations. Getting vaccinated with Tdap is especially important for families with new babies.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) recommends the Tdap shot for pregnant women if they have not had it before. They should get it after the 20th week of pregnancy, preferably during the last trimester of pregnancy (weeks 27 to 40). This will give the baby some protection against whooping cough before the baby gets the recommended shots.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2013.2 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2013-02-13
Last reviewed: 2013-01-03
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
© 2013 RelayHealth and/or its affiliates. All rights reserved.
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