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Whooping cough (pertussis)

Whooping cough is a contagious bacterial infection of the lungs and airways causing a persistent hacking cough with a characteristic whooping noise.

Whooping cough is also known as pertussis after the bacterium called Bordetella pertussis that causes it.


The rod-shaped Bordetella pertussis bacteria (shown above in green) lodge themselves in the cilia (small hair-like structures) of the respiratory tract.

Whooping cough can spread easily to people nearby such as family members through coughing and sneezing.

Whooping cough symptoms

The initial symptoms of whooping cough may include sore throat, runny nose, raised temperature and generally feeling unwell.

These may take between six and 20 days to develop after someone is infected.

The initial symptoms can last one or two weeks before the second or paroxysmal stage sets in.

Symptoms in this stage include intensive bouts of coughing producing thick phlegm, the 'whoop' sound and vomiting (being sick) after coughing. The paroxysms may be exhausting and cause fatigue. This phase of the illness typically lasts around two weeks or longer.

Full recovery can take around three months or longer.

Whooping cough prevention

Children are immunised against whooping cough in the 5-in-1 vaccine as babies at two, three and four months old, followed by a 4-in-1 pre-school booster.

All pregnant women between 28 – 38 weeks of pregnancy are also offered vaccination against whooping cough to help protect babies from whooping cough from when they are born until they are old enough to be vaccinated.

Whooping cough treatment

Antibiotics are used to treat whooping cough if it is diagnosed early enough. Infants may need hospital care because of the risk of severe complications.

Corticosteroids may be given to reduce inflammation in a child's airways to help them breathe easier.

Doctors will usually recommend drinking plenty of fluids and rest.

Where possible, the person with whooping cough should be kept away from others until they are no longer infectious.

This is after they have completed a 5-day course of antibiotics or once they have had three weeks of intense bouts of coughing, whichever is sooner.

Anyone showing symptoms of whooping cough should seek medical advice.

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WebMD Medical Reference

Medically Reviewed by Dr Rob Hicks on August 03, 2016

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