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Whooping Cough (Pertussis)



  • Whooping cough, also called pertussis, is a very contagious lung infection.
  • Your child’s healthcare provider will prescribe antibiotic medicine for your child and for those people with whom he or she has close household contact.
  • The pertussis vaccine protects against whooping cough and is included in children’s DTaP shots, starting at 2 months of age. Babies should get 3 DTaP shots during their first year of life, followed by booster shots as they get older.


What is whooping cough?

Whooping cough is a lung infection. It is called whooping cough because of the whooping sound of your child’s breathing after a coughing spell. 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 with the illness who is sneezing or coughing. When teens or adults have whooping cough, it’s usually a mild cold-like illness, so they don’t know they are carrying the bacteria and can pass it on to babies and children.

What are the symptoms?

The first symptoms are usually a runny nose, mild cough, and red, watery eyes. The cough may last for a few weeks. The younger your child is, the more severe the infection is likely to be. The cough can get worse and worse. It may cause vomiting. Coughing spells are usually worse at night. Babies may have spells of not breathing and may not cough at all.

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your child’s symptoms and medical history and examine your child. Your provider may use a swab to get a sample of mucus from your child’s nose to send to the lab for testing. Your child may need a chest X-ray or a blood test also.

How is it treated?

Your child’s healthcare provider will prescribe antibiotic medicine. The medicine may decrease the severity of the illness but will not cure it immediately. The main purpose of the antibiotic medicine is lessen the chance to spread the illness. Because whooping cough is a very serious illness for babies, they may need to stay at the hospital for treatment.

Your child will need to stay home, away from work, school, or public places, until he or she has finished the antibiotic medicine or until your child’s healthcare provider says it’s OK.

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

How can I take care of my child?

Call 911 or get emergency care right away if your child is having trouble breathing, stops breathing, or turns blue.

  • If the air in your child’s bedroom is dry, a cool-mist humidifier with distilled water 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, sit with your child in the steamy bathroom for 10 to 15 minutes.
  • Using nasal saline spray may help thin mucus in the nose and throat so it is easier to breathe.
  • Do not give cough medicines to children under the age of 4. If your child is between the ages of 4 and 6, cough medicine is usually not helpful and may be harmful, so ask your healthcare provider before giving any cough medicine. For children over the age of 6, cough medicine is usually not helpful.
  • Encourage your child to drink plenty of liquids to help loosen mucus and make it easier to cough it up. Staying well hydrated 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 get your child’s test results
    • How long it will take for your child to recover
    • If there are 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. Keep all appointments for provider visits or tests.

How can I help prevent whooping cough?

The pertussis vaccine protects against whooping cough and is included in children’s DTaP shots starting at 2 months of age. Babies should get 3 DTaP shots during their first year of life, followed by booster shots as they get older.

Make sure your child gets all doses of DTaP on schedule, which is 5 shots by age 6. Whooping cough is a very contagious disease and can cause death for babies. The DTaP vaccine is safe and effective in preventing this disease. 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.

A tetanus-diphtheria-pertussis booster called a Tdap shot should be given at age 11 or 12. Adults or teens who did not get a booster shot at this age should get a Tdap shot one time, especially if the family is expecting a baby and then every 7 to 10 years ongoing. Anyone in close contact with babies should be up-to-date with their whooping cough vaccination.

Developed by Change Healthcare.
Pediatric Advisor 2022.1 published by Change Healthcare.
Last modified: 2021-09-27
Last reviewed: 2020-11-02
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.
© 2022 Change Healthcare LLC and/or one of its subsidiaries
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