Whooping cough (pertussis) is a highly contagious respiratory tract infection
- October 15, 2020
In many people, whooping cough (pertussis) is marked by a severe hacking cough followed by a high-pitched intake of breath that sounds like “whoop.”
Before the vaccine was developed, whooping cough was considered a childhood disease. Now whooping cough primarily affects children too young to have completed the full course of vaccinations and teenagers and adults whose immunity has faded.
Deaths associated with whooping cough are rare but most commonly occur in infants. That’s why it’s so important for pregnant women — and other people who will have close contact with an infant — to be vaccinated against whooping cough.
Once you become infected with whooping cough, it takes about seven to 10 days for signs and symptoms to appear, though it can sometimes take longer. They’re usually mild at first and resemble those of a common cold:
- Runny nose
- Nasal congestion
- Red, watery eyes
After a week or two, signs and symptoms worsen. Thick mucus accumulates inside your airways, causing uncontrollable coughing. Severe and prolonged coughing attacks may:
- Provoke vomiting
- Result in a red or blue face
- Cause extreme fatigue
- End with a high-pitched “whoop” sound during the next breath of air
However, many people don’t develop the characteristic whoop. Sometimes, a persistent hacking cough is the only sign that an adolescent or adult has whooping cough.
Infants may not cough at all. Instead, they may struggle to breathe, or they may even temporarily stop breathing.
When to see a health care provider
Call your doctor if prolonged coughing spells cause you or your child to:
- Turn red or blue
- Seem to be struggling to breathe or have noticeable pauses in breathing
- Inhale with a whooping sound
Whooping cough is caused by a type of bacteria called Bordetella pertussis. When an infected person coughs or sneezes, tiny germ-laden droplets are sprayed into the air and breathed into the lungs of anyone who happens to be nearby.
The whooping cough vaccine you receive as a child eventually wears off. This leaves most teenagers and adults susceptible to the infection during an outbreak — and there continue to be regular outbreaks.
Infants who are younger than age 12 months who are unvaccinated or haven’t received the full set of recommended vaccines have the highest risk for severe complications and death.
Teens and adults often recover from whooping cough with no problems. When complications occur, they tend to be side effects of the strenuous coughing, such as:
- Bruised or cracked ribs
- Abdominal hernias
- Broken blood vessels in the skin or the whites of your eyes
In infants — especially those under 6 months of age — complications from whooping cough are more severe and may include:
- Slowed or stopped breathing
- Dehydration or weight loss due to feeding difficulties
- Brain damage
Because infants and toddlers are at greatest risk of complications from whooping cough, they’re more likely to need treatment in a hospital. Complications can be life-threatening for infants younger than 6 months old.
Learn more about prevention, diagnosis and treatment.