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Pertussis - Treating whooping cough

NHS Choices Medical Reference

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Young babies (less than a year old) with whooping cough may need hospital treatment to avoid developing complications.

The condition is much less serious in older children and adults and can usually be treated at home with self-help measures (see below).

Antibiotics

If whooping cough is diagnosed during the first three weeks (21 days) of the infection, your GP may prescribe a course of antibiotics to prevent the infection spreading.

Antibiotics will stop you being infectious after five days of taking them. However, without antibiotics, you may still be infectious until three weeks after your intense bouts of coughing start.

If whooping cough is not diagnosed until the later stages of the infection, it is unlikely that your GP will prescribe antibiotics. This is because the bacterium that causes whooping cough has already gone by this time, so you will no longer be infectious. Antibiotics will not improve your symptoms at this stage.

Babies and young children

Babies are affected most severely by whooping cough, and are most at risk of developing complications. For this reason, babies under 12 months who contract whooping cough will often need treatment in hospital.

If your child is admitted to hospital to be treated for whooping cough, it is likely they will be treated in isolation. This means they will be kept away from other patients to prevent the infection spreading.

Your child may need to be given antibiotics intravenously (straight into a vein through a drip).

If your child is severely affected, they may also need corticosteroid medication as well as antibiotics. Corticosteroid medication contains steroids. These are powerful hormones that will reduce inflammation (swelling) in your child's airways, making it easier for them to breathe. Like antibiotics, corticosteroids may be given intravenously.

If your child needs additional help with breathing, they may be given extra oxygen through a facemask. A handheld device called a bulb syringe may also be used to gently suction away any mucus that is blocking their airways.

Self-help measures

Whooping cough is much less serious in older children and adults than it is in babies and young children. Your GP will usually advise you to manage the infection at home and follow some simple advice:

  • get plenty of rest
  • drink lots of fluids to prevent dehydration
  • clear away excess mucus or vomit during bouts of coughing so it cannot be inhaled and cause choking
  • ibuprofen and/or paracetamol can be used to relieve other symptoms such as a high temperature and sore throat - aspirin should not be given to children under the age of 16

How to avoid passing on the infection

Whooping cough is highly infectious, so if you or your child have it, it is important to stay away from others until the bacterium has completely cleared.

The affected person should stay at home until they have completed a five-day course of antibiotics from their GP, or

had intense bouts of coughing (paroxysms) for three weeks (whichever is sooner).

Although bouts of coughing may continue after three weeks, it is unlikely you will still be infectious because the bacterium will have gone.

Preventative treatment

Preventative treatment may be recommended for members of your household (or dorm or residential home) known to be vulnerable to the effects of infection (these people are known as vulnerable contacts).

Vulnerable contacts include:

  • newborn babies
  • young children under the age of 12 months who have not received the complete course of the DTaP/IPV/Hib vaccine
  • children under the age of 10 who have not been vaccinated
  • women in the last month of pregnancy
  • people with a weakened immune system, such as people with HIV or people undergoing chemotherapy
  • people with a long-term health condition such as asthma or heart failure

Preventative treatment is also usually recommended if a household member works in a healthcare, social care or childcare facility as they could pass the infection on to other vulnerable contacts

Preventative treatment usually involves a short course of antibiotics, and in some cases, a booster dose of the vaccine.

Medical Review: June 24, 2012
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