Whooping cough

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Whooping cough (pertussis) is a highly contagious respiratory tract infection. In many people, it's marked by a severe hacking cough followed by a high-pitched intake of breath that sounds like "whoop."

Before the vaccine was developed, whooping cough was considered a childhood disease. Now whooping cough primarily affects children too young to have completed the full course of vaccinations and teenagers and adults whose immunity has faded.

Deaths associated with whooping cough are rare but most commonly occur in infants. That's why it's so important for pregnant women — and other people who will have close contact with an infant — to be vaccinated against whooping cough.


The incubation period (the time between initial infection and the onset of symptoms) for whooping cough is about 5 to 10 days, but symptoms might not appear for as long as three weeks, according to the CDCTrusted Source.

Early symptoms mimic the common cold and include a runny nose, cough, and fever. Within two weeks, a dry and persistent cough may develop that makes breathing very difficult.

Children often make a “whoop” sound when they try to take a breath after coughing spells, though this classic sound is less common in infants.

This type of severe cough can also cause:


blue or purple skin around the mouth


low-grade fever

breathing difficulties


Whooping cough is caused by a type of bacteria called Bordetella pertussis. When an infected person coughs or sneezes, tiny germ-laden droplets are sprayed into the air and breathed into the lungs of anyone who happens to be nearby.

Risk factors

The whooping cough vaccine you receive as a child eventually wears off. This leaves most teenagers and adults susceptible to the infection during an outbreak — and there continue to be regular outbreaks.

Infants who are younger than age 12 months who are unvaccinated or haven't received the full set of recommended vaccines have the highest risk for severe complications and death.

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Infants with whooping cough require close monitoring to avoid potentially dangerous complications due to lack of oxygen. Serious complications include:

brain damage



bleeding in the brain

apnea (slowed or stopped breathing)

convulsions (uncontrollable, rapid shaking)


If your infant experiences symptoms of infection, call your doctor immediately.

Older children and adults can experience complications as well, including:

difficulty sleeping

urinary incontinence (loss of bladder control)


rib fracture


The best way to prevent whooping cough is to get vaccinated. Tdap, a pertussis booster shot, is recommended for unvaccinated adults instead of their next Td (tetanus and diphtheria) booster, which is given every 10 years.

The effectiveness of vaccines decreases over time. Adults who were vaccinated against pertussis as children can get whooping cough as their immunity, or protection against the disease, begins to fade.

Make an appointment to see your healthcare provider if you think you may have come into contact with someone with whooping cough, even if you haven’t developed a chronic cough.

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