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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 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 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 able to pass 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 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. Your child’s 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. The medicine may decrease the severity of the illness, but will not cure it immediately. 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 and child care providers.

How can I 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 may be used to remove mucus. Saline water may help thin mucus in the nose and throat so it is easier to remove.
  • Do not give cough medicines to children under the age of 4. If your child is between the ages of 4 and 6, ask your healthcare provider before giving cough medicine. For children over the age of 6, you can give cough medicines, but they have not been proven to be helpful.
  • Honey has been shown to help coughs but should not be given to children under 1 year because of the risk of botulism.
  • 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
    • 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.

Whooping cough is a very dangerous disease, and can cause death for babies. The DTaP vaccine is very 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. Anyone in close contact with babies should be up-to-date with whooping cough vaccination.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Pediatric Advisor 2015.3 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2015-03-01
Last reviewed: 2014-09-22
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.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.
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