Whooping Cough (Pertussis)

What is whooping cough (pertussis)?

Whooping cough, or pertussis, mainly affects infants and young children. Caused by a bacterium, it is characterized by paroxysms (intense fits or spells) of coughing that end with the characteristic whoop as air is inhaled. Whooping cough caused thousands of deaths in the 1930s and 1940s, but, with the advent of a vaccine, the rate of death has declined dramatically.

What are the symptoms of whooping cough?

The disease usually takes one to three weeks to incubate. The following are the most common symptoms of whooping cough. However, each individual may experience symptoms differently. Symptoms may include:

  • coughing
  • sneezing
  • nasal discharge
  • fever
  • sore, watery eyes
  • whooping
  • lips, tongue, and nailbeds may turn blue during coughing spells

Whooping cough can last up to 10 weeks and can lead to pneumonia.

The symptoms of whooping cough may resemble other medical conditions. Always consult your physician for a diagnosis.

How is whooping cough diagnosed?

In addition to a complete medical history and medical examination, diagnosis of whooping cough is often confirmed with a culture taken from the nose.

Treatment for whooping cough:

Specific treatment for whooping cough will be determined by your physician based on:

  • your overall health and medical history
  • extent of the condition
  • your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies
  • expectations for the course of the condition
  • your opinion or preference

Antibiotics are generally not helpful once severe coughing has begun but does help to prevent the spread of infection after 3 to 4 days of treatment. Other treatment may include:

  • keeping warm
  • eating small, frequent meals
  • drinking plenty of fluids
  • reducing stimuli that may provoke coughing

Hospitalization may be required in severe cases.

Preventing whooping cough:

Although a vaccine has been developed against whooping cough, which is routinely given to children in the first year of life, cases of the disease still occur, especially in infants younger than 6 months of age.