Whooping Cough

What is a Whooping Cough?

Whooping cough is a bacterial infection. It is also known as pertussis. This infection specifically affects the nose and the throat and most often enters the body through those points. Whooping cough is caused by a bacterium known as Bordetella pertussis. Bordetella pertussis is a type of bacteria that attaches to the cilia of the upper respiratory system. Cilia are tiny extensions that are similar to small hairs in the lining of the respiratory tissues.

Whooping cough is a highly contagious bacterial infection. The disease only affects humans and can be transmitted from person to person through coughing and sneezing. The particles can be breathed in or transferred to the mouth or nose if a person touches contaminated objects or surfaces and then touches their mouth or nose. After the cough associated with whooping cough begins, a person can still be contagious for around two weeks, meaning direct contact with that person can cause transmission.

What are the Symptoms of a Whooping Cough?

There are many symptoms associated with whooping cough. Of course, a severe and persistent cough is the primary symptom of whooping cough.

When a person first shows symptoms, they are similar to a common cold, including runny nose, congestion, runny eyes and red eyes, sneezing, and a low-grade fever. However, while a common cold will usually resolve itself after a week or so, with whooping cough, the condition gets worse around that time. Thick mucus will develop in the airways which causes that severe cough associated with whooping cough. These coughing spells are dry (no mucus is coughed up) and may produce a whooping sound. Coughing spells may be prolonged and cause the face to turn bluish or red or even cause vomiting.

Whooping Cough Causes

Whooping cough, or Pertussis, is a very contagious respiratory disease caused by Bordetella pertussis, bacteria that attaches to the tiny, hair-like extensions (cilia) lining your upper respiratory system. They give off toxins which injure the cilia, causing your airways to swell.

Whooping cough is only found and spread among humans, and it spreads from person to person. If you spend a lot of time with someone who has pertussis, you are prone to catching it while the infected person coughs or sneezes in your shared breathing space.

Many babies catch it from older siblings and parents or caregivers who can be unaware they have the disease. Once infected, victims are very contagious for 2 weeks after the coughing commences. Antibiotics sometimes shorten the time someone is contagious.

How is a Whooping Cough Treated?

The only treatment for whooping cough is antibiotics to kill the bacteria that cause the condition.

Cough medications, over-the-counter or prescription, have little to no effect on the severe cough that characterizes whooping cough. Infants and young children with whooping cough may be hospitalized during treatment because the condition can be life-threatening at that age.

Additionally, the infection could be prevented through the Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis) vaccination. This vaccination requires an initial vaccination and boosters every 10 years throughout adulthood. However, the vaccine is not a guarantee of never getting infected.

Whooping Cough Prevention

If you wish to prevent whooping cough, make sure your children receive the pertussis vaccine. Doctors typically given pertussis with diphtheria and tetanus during infancy.

Unfortunately, the vaccine requires several stages to have the greatest efficacy. This involves a total of five injections. They have to be spaced out over a period of time. Therefore, infants usually get a shot at each of the following ages,

Infant ages include:

  • 2 months
  • 4 months
  • 6 months
  • 15 to 18 months
  • 4 to 6 years

It is possible to have reactions following the vaccines, although the side effects are usually mild. Your infant can suffer from fever, headaches, crankiness, fatigue and soreness at the injection site.

One of the best ways to prevent the spread of the bacteria that cause whooping cough is to practice good hygiene. So, use a tissue to cover your nose and mouth when you cough and sneeze. Put any used tissue in the trash. If you don’t have a tissue, sneeze or cough into your elbow or upper arm.

Make sure to wash your hands with water and soap as often as possible, and rub your hands together vigorously under water for 20 seconds. You can use an alcohol-based hand rub as a substitute in a pinch, although it’s not as effective as washing with soap and water.

Last Reviewed:
October 11, 2016
Last Updated:
September 09, 2017