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Understanding pertussis (whooping cough)

Routine vaccination can help prevent this potentially serious illness.

It may start out mildly enough—a little cough, a runny nose, a bit of a fever. You might think it’s nothing more serious than the common cold.

But pertussis, or whooping cough, can be much more serious than a cold, especially in babies younger than a year old. Here's information on how to recognize it and—even more important—how to prevent it.

Causes and symptoms

This highly contagious respiratory illness is caused by bacteria that attach inside the upper respiratory tract and release toxins. Those toxins cause inflammation in the airways. And the result can be severe coughing fits.

Pertussis is often called whooping cough because of these coughing fits. The rapid and severe coughing can go on until all the air is gone from the lungs, leading to a loud "whooping" inhalation.

During these episodes, a person may:

  • Have trouble breathing.
  • Vomit.
  • Turn blue around the lips and nails.

Pertussis may start out with mild, flu-like symptoms. Coughing fits may begin after a few weeks, and they may last for many weeks.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), complications of pertussis can include pneumonia, convulsions, passing out, rib fractures (from the coughing fits), apnea (slowed or stopped breathing) and encephalopathy (disease of the brain). Pertussis can also be deadly.

Babies are most vulnerable to the effects of pertussis, according to CDC.


Antibiotics are generally used to treat whooping cough. And early treatment is best, according to CDC. If started early, treatment may keep the infection from being too severe. On the other hand, treatment started after coughing fits begin may not do much good, since the bacteria have already done their damage.

If one person in your home has whooping cough, your doctor may ask that everyone in the house take antibiotics to keep it from spreading, according to the American Lung Association.

Other steps may help ease the symptoms:

  • Drink plenty of fluids.
  • Use a cool mist vaporizer.
  • Eat small, frequent meals to help prevent vomiting during coughing fits.
  • Try to keep your home clean and free of things that could trigger coughing, such as smoke and dust.

Don't use cough medications unless the doctor tells you to, warns CDC. These medicines aren't likely to help and their use is discouraged.


Pertussis can be spread through touching contaminated surfaces or by inhaling contaminated air (such as when an infected person coughs or sneezes close by).

The disease is most contagious in the first two weeks after a person is infected.  

Your best bet for keeping yourself and your family healthy is to be sure everyone is up-to-date on their vaccinations.

For youngsters, that means getting DTaP vaccine doses around ages 2, 4 and 6 months; another between 15 and 18 months; and another between 4 and 6 years, for a total of five shots by age 6.

Immunity does decrease over time. So adolescents need a booster around age 11 or 12.

And adults need a booster too. The vaccine for everyone 7 years and older is the Tdap. Talk to your doctor about whether you might need one.

You may still get whooping cough even if you've been vaccinated. But the disease is likely to be much less severe.

Reviewed 8/1/2022

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