What is Whooping Cough

What is Whooping Cough

Whooping Cough is Still a Problem Despite the Effectiveness of Vaccinations

Each year up to 40,000 people from infants to adults develop a bacterial infection known as a whooping cough despite widespread vaccinations against this illness. Peak outbreaks occur nationally every 3 to 5 years, and the last outbreak occurred in 2012 when the CDC reported 48,277 cases. Unfortunately, not all cases are diagnosed and reported, so the number of whooping cough cases per year may be much higher than what is reported. CDC researchers don’t understand why whooping cough outbreaks occur, but vaccinations have successfully limited the number of cases.

A whooping cough, also known as pertussis, is a respiratory illness caused by the Bordetella pertussis bacteria. The bacteria get into the nose and throat where it releases toxins in the upper respiratory system causing the air passages to swell. Whooping cough is very contagious, and it spreads from person to person through coughing, sneezing, or even breathing on another person. The whooping cough vaccine is effective most of the time, but people who have been vaccinated can still get this illness. People who have been vaccinated against a whooping cough have milder symptoms than people who haven’t received the vaccination.


Generally, whooping cough symptoms can appear at any time from 5 to 10 days after being exposed, but symptoms can take up to three weeks to appear. A whooping cough is often misdiagnosed in the first couple of weeks because the symptoms resemble a cold or a low-grade fever. An accurate diagnosis usually occurs after the early stage when the illness progresses and the person presents the traditional whooping cough symptoms. These symptoms include:

  • Violent fits of rapid coughing
  • A loud “whooping” sound at the end of the coughing fits
  • Vomiting during or at the end of the coughing fits
  • Exhaustion after the coughing fits

The coughing fits can last up to ten weeks or more, and they become worse and more frequent the longer the whooping cough lasts.


Whooping cough can cause serious complications. Half of all infants with a whooping cough need hospitalization, and 1% will die from this illness. Infants may also experience pneumonia, convulsions, apnea, or encephalopathy. Complications in teens and adults are usually less serious. Less than 5% need hospitalization, and complications are typically the result of the coughing and not the pertussis bacteria. Complications from coughing fits include passing out, breaking a rib, losing weight, and losing bladder control.


It’s important to get treated in the early stages of a whooping cough, and it’s usually treated with antibiotics. If treatment doesn’t occur after three weeks, then any medication is not likely to be effective because the whooping cough bacteria have already gone too far in the body and caused damage. In addition to antibiotics, it is good to keep the home free of irritants such as smoke and chemical fumes from cleaning products. Using a cool mist vaporizer, thorough hand washing, and drinking plenty of fluids also helps to minimize complication from this illness. Cough medicine generally isn’t effective in treating whooping cough, but it still may be prescribed by a doctor.

Getting vaccinated and staying away from infected people is the best way to prevent a whooping cough. The recommended vaccine for whooping cough is DTaP, which also protects against diphtheria and tetanus. This vaccine fades over time and a booster shot is recommended every ten years. People of any age can die from whooping cough if it’s left untreated. There has been a rise in whooping cough case in the U.S. in recent years, so it’s important for people to be vigilant in protecting themselves against this illness.


Recommended Posts