Whooping Cough Symptoms and Treatment

Whooping cough is a serious respiratory infection that can be dangerous for babies who have not been vaccinated. Learn about the symptoms and treatment, which includes the pertussis vaccine.

What Does Whooping Cough Sound Like?

    What Is Whooping Cough?

    Whooping cough (pertussis) is a very contagious infection of the upper respiratory tract caused by the bacteria Bordetella pertussis. The infection is spread through sneezing, coughing, and direct contact with infected secretions such as saliva and mucus. The incubation period can last 5 to 21 days, but usually for about a week.

      Symptoms and Signs of Whooping Cough

      The disease starts with coldlike symptoms in the form of a head cold, mild fever, and mild coughing. Following the onset of symptoms in the first week or two, the cough becomes more pronounced with frequent coughing fits, especially at night. The fits are generally a series of 5 to 15 staccato coughs in rapid succession; this can last many weeks and is referred to as the "100 day cough." After coughing, the child will breathe deeply and make a "whooping" sound, hence the name.

      Unvaccinated infants in their first year of life are most likely to become very ill if they get whooping cough. Some experience temporary loss of breath instead of coughing fits, and the temporary loss of oxygen can cause the skin color to turn bluish. If the infants don't eat or drink enough, the coughing fits and whooping can be accompanied by vomiting. Look out for danger signs of dehydration: increased thirst, dry lips and mouth lining, sunken eyes, dry skin, less urination, tiredness, and irritability. They also run the risk of getting pneumonia.

      Children under 6 months may even need to be hospitalized. In very rare cases, whooping cough can cause seizures and brain damage in newborns and infants.

      How to Prevent Whooping Cough

      Vaccination is the best way to prevent whooping cough. In the U.S., the whooping cough vaccine is administered as part of the recommended immunization schedule for children. Children should be given the diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (DTaP) vaccine at least five times (three times each at 2, 4, 6 months, once between 15 and 18 months, and once between 4 and 6 years old). Teens, beginning at 11 to 12 years of age, and adults can receive a whooping cough vaccine called Tdap.

        Treatment for Whooping Cough

        Always consult your pediatrician, who will prescribe antibiotics that will treat the whooping cough for up to two weeks. (Cough syrups are rarely effective.) The doctor may also give extra oxygen, suction mucus from the respiratory tract, or give intravenous fluids if your child is dehydrated.

        At home, a humidifier or cool-mist vaporizer can ease the child's discomfort. Make sure your child is not exposed to aerosol sprays, tobacco smoke, and other substances that can irritate the respiratory passages. To prevent dehydration, give plenty of fluids and, when appropriate, nose drops.

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