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Whooping cough

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 3 minutes read

Whooping cough is a common bacterial infection that affects the airways and lungs, usually in toddlers and children. It’s spread from one child to another by coughs and sneezes and is highly contagious. There are many different types of coughs in children, so it is important to be able to differentiate.

Doctors call whooping cough pertussis. It causes a persistent cough that can last for several months. For this reason, it is also referred to as the 100-day cough.

Hand hygiene, coughing and sneezing into tissues immediately disposed of, and staying away from others while they are infectious are paramount to reduce the spread.

Pertussis vaccination forms one part of the usual childhood immunizations.

Doctor’s advice

How do I know it’s whooping cough?

Whooping cough gets its name from a very distinctive cough that gives a whooping sound caused by the gasp for breath between coughs.

It starts off like other airway infections, with a runny nose, sore throat, and mild temperature. After a week, the cough develops – you can expect bouts of coughing lasting several minutes, and this is usually worse at night. Your child may bring up a thick yellow mucus.

It can be challenging for your child to get through whooping cough – during a nasty bout, you might see them gasp for air and make a noise similar to a whoop, hence the name. The coughing bouts can become so intense that your child may vomit, and the strain of coughing can leave your child with bloodshot eyes or nosebleeds.

It can make young and vulnerable children and babies very sick, and they may have brief periods of not breathing and turning blue. If this happens, you should dial 911 for an ambulance right away.

While the cough may persist, it eases over time to become less severe.

Who's at risk of whooping cough?

Whooping cough is highly contagious and can affect anyone who comes into close contact with someone who has it. They are more likely to pass it on from day 6 of becoming unwell to 3 weeks after the cough starts.

Babies under 6 months are at increased risk, so vaccines are offered during pregnancy, and you're more likely to get it if you haven't had the full set of vaccines to protect you from it.

While a vaccine is offered to all, there have been increasing cases in recent years, and whooping cough seems to come in outbreaks every few years.

How is it treated?

Those with severe symptoms may need to be admitted to the hospital, so it’s important that if you or your child have any significant difficulty in breathing, periods where you stop breathing, or your lips turn blue, you should call an ambulance immediately.

For others who do not need hospitalization, antibiotic treatment in the first 3 weeks can effectively reduce the spread and the duration of the illness. After 3 weeks, antibiotics are less effective. If you start antibiotics, you should stay away from others until after day 5. If you have been diagnosed but don’t have antibiotics, you should stay at home for 3 weeks after the coughing began.

At home, it is important that your child gets plenty of rest, drinks lots of fluids, stays hydrated, and takes simple pain relief such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen to reduce fever and pain. If symptoms have persisted for longer than 3 weeks or they are getting worse, you should speak to your doctor.

Who gets a vaccine?

The US childhood vaccination schedule offers the DTaP vaccine, which includes pertussis at 2, 4, and 6 months of age and a booster at 15-18 months and 4-6 years. Another booster is given at 11-12 years.

These vaccinations are essential in preventing children from getting whooping cough, although it doesn’t offer lifelong immunity.

Babies are at exceptionally high risk, so to protect them from birth, pregnant women are offered a pertussis vaccine to boost their antibodies any time between the weeks of 27-36 of pregnancy. They must renew this with every pregnancy to offer their baby the best protection.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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