Whooping cough, or pertussis, is very contagious and mainly affects infants and young children. Whooping cough is caused by a bacterium called Bordetella pertussis. The illness is characterized by coughing spells that end with a characteristic "whoop" as air is inhaled. Whooping cough caused thousands of deaths in the 1930s and 1940s. With the advent of a vaccine, the death rate has declined dramatically. Pertussis vaccines are very effective. However, if pertussis is circulating in the community, there is a possibility that even a fully vaccinated person could catch the disease. Babies who are too young to receive the vaccine are also at very high risk of catching pertussis. The illness can be very serious, even sometimes fatal, in young infants. Many babies infected with pertussis have caught it from an adult.
The disease starts like the common cold, with a runny nose or congestion, sneezing, and sometimes a mild cough or fever. Usually, after a week or two, severe coughing begins. The following are the most common symptoms of whooping cough. However, each person may experience symptoms differently. Infants younger than age 6 months may not have a classic whooping cough, or it may be difficult to hear. Instead of coughing, infants may have a pause in their breathing, called apnea, which is very serious. You should consult your health care provider or call 911 if you observe pauses in breathing. Symptoms of whooping cough may include:
Coughing, violently and rapidly, until all the air has left the lungs and a person is forced to inhale, causing a "whooping" sound
Sore, watery eyes
Lips, tongue, and nailbeds may turn blue during coughing spells
Whooping cough can last up to 10 weeks and can lead to pneumonia and other complications.
The symptoms of whooping cough may look like other medical conditions. Always consult your health care provider for a diagnosis.
In addition to a complete medical history and physical exam, diagnosis of whooping cough is often confirmed with a culture taken from the nose.
Specific treatment for whooping cough will be determined by your doctor, 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 typically given within 3 weeks of the onset of cough in babies over age 1 year, and within 6 weeks of the onset of cough in infants younger than 1 year. Antibiotics are also given to pregnant women within 6 weeks of the onset of cough. Antibiotics help to prevent the spread of infection after 5 days of treatment. Other treatment may include:
Eating small, frequent meals
Drinking plenty of fluids
Reducing stimuli that may provoke coughing
Hospitalization may be required in severe cases.
Although a vaccine has been developed against whooping cough, which is routinely given to children in their first year of life, cases of the disease still occur, especially in infants younger than age 6 months.
Since the 1980s, a dramatic increase in the number of cases of pertussis has occurred, especially in children and teenagers, ages 10 to 19, and in babies younger than age 6 months. This is because the decline in vaccination in some communities. The CDC recommends that children get 5 DTaP shots for maximum protection against pertussis. A DTaP shot is a combination vaccine that protects against 3 diseases: diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis. The first 3 shots are given at ages 2, 4, and 6 months. The fourth shot is given between ages 15 and 18 months; the fifth shot is given when a child enters school at ages 4 to 6 years. At their regular checkups, preteens ages 11 or 12 years should get a dose of Tdap. The Tdap booster contains tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis. If an adult did not get a Tdap as a preteen or teen, he or she should get a dose of Tdap instead of the Td booster. All adults should get a Td booster every 10 years, but it can be given before the 10-year mark. Pregnant women should have the booster late in the second trimester, or in the third trimester of each pregnancy. Always consult your health care provider for advice.
The following related clinical trials and research studies are currently seeking participants at Massachusetts General Hospital. Search for clinical trials and studies in another area of interest.
Mass General ensures that our patients receive the highest quality and safest care possible. Learn about our performance, our improvement goals and how we compare to other institutions.