Whooping Cough

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Understanding Whooping Cough

Whooping cough is a highly contagious disease that affects the lungs. This disease is caused by a bacteria called "Bordetella pertussis"—that's why whooping cough is also called "pertussis." Anyone who is exposed to the bacteria can get sick. In 2013, about half of whooping cough cases were reported in persons 11 years of age and older.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimates that many more whooping cough cases go undiagnosed and unreported each year in the United States.

The FAQs below can help you learn more.

Whooping cough is a highly contagious disease that affects the lungs. This disease is caused by a bacteria called "Bordetella pertussis"—that's why whooping cough is also called "pertussis."

Adults may not be able to recognize that they have whooping cough from the disease's initial symptoms. That's because whooping cough can start out like a common cold, with runny nose or congestion, sneezing, and maybe mild cough or mild fever. But after 1-2 weeks, severe coughing can begin.

Unlike the common cold, whooping cough can lead to coughing fits that may continue for weeks. Violent and rapid coughing spells can occur. The disease received its name after the loud "whooping" sound that is sometimes made when inhaling air during a coughing fit. The illness can be milder (less severe) and the typical "whoop" absent in children, adolescents and adults who were previously vaccinated. In infants, the cough may be minimal or absent, and apnea, in which breathing actually stops, may be the only symptom.

The germs (bacteria) that cause whooping cough can be spread from person to person. The germs can spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Those in close contact can become infected by breathing in these germs. Being next to an infected person who coughs or sneezes may put you at risk for catching whooping cough.

People are most able to spread whooping cough when they have cold-like symptoms. At this stage, they may not even know that they have whooping cough. They may spread the disease for the first 2 weeks after the coughing starts.

Adults, adolescents, and infants—anyone who is exposed to the germs (bacteria)—can get whooping cough. Adults and adolescents 11 and older typically made up about half of the reported whooping cough cases in 2013. Many infants who get whooping cough are infected by parents, older brothers and sisters, or other caregivers.

Adults and teens can also get complications from pertussis. They are usually less serious in this older age group, especially in those who have been vaccinated with a pertussis vaccine. Complications in adults and teens are often caused by the cough itself. In more serious cases, whooping cough can lead to intense coughing fits, possibly causing a person to turn blue in the face, vomit, feel very tired and/or pass out. These coughing fits can last for up to 3 months. Complications from whooping cough can include weight loss, loss of bladder control, fainting, rib fractures from severe coughing, and pneumonia.

A small percentage of adolescents and adults with whooping cough need to be hospitalized for their illness.

In one study, 61% of adults with whooping cough missed work. These individuals missed an average of 10 days.

Whooping cough can be more serious for infants and young children than for adults. Whooping cough in infants and young children may lead to:

  • Pneumonia (lung infection)
  • Apnea (a pause in breathing)
  • Seizures (jerking or twitching of the muscles or staring)
  • Encephalopathy (disease of the brain)

About half of the babies under the age of 12 months who have whooping cough need to be hospitalized.

Of the 28,660 cases reported to the CDC in 2014 (provisional data) there were a total of 9 deaths reported of which 8 were in babies from birth to 11 months of age.

The "whoop" sound of the cough may be absent in children, adolescents, and adults who were previously vaccinated, and in infants the cough may be minimal or absent.

Hear what the “whoop” can sound like*

*Whooping cough audio courtesy of Dr. Doug Jenkinson.


Pertussis is generally treated with antibiotics and early treatment is very important. Treatment may make your infection less severe if it is started early, before coughing fits begin. Treatment can also help prevent spreading the disease to close contacts (people who have spent a lot of time around the infected person). Treatment after three weeks of illness is unlikely to help because the bacteria are gone from your body, even though you usually will still have symptoms. This is because the bacteria have already done damage to your body.

A vaccine called Tdap can help protect adolescents and adults against 3 diseases: tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis. Pertussis is another name for whooping cough. Talk to your healthcare provider to find out if vaccination is right for you.

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