What’s the Hoopla Over Whooping Cough?

You may have heard about whooping cough outbreaks in the news lately. Should you get vaccinated? House Call Doctor answers all your questions about this deadly disease.

Sanaz Majd, MD
Episode #090

What’s the Hoopla Over Whooping Cough?

You may have heard the recent hoopla about whooping cough. Maybe you’ve noticed how it seems to pop up in the media every now and then. Or maybe you’ve been wondering why your child(ren)’s school is now mandating that kids get vaccinated against the whooping cough. Should you get vaccinated, too? What’s the big whoop about the whooping cough anyway?

I’ll be answering all of these questions and hopefully more in today’s episode.


What Is the Whooping Cough?

Okay, so the name makes it pretty obvious that it has something to do with a cough…and it does. The fancy medical term for whooping cough is “pertussis,” and it is a highly contagious respiratory illness caused by bacteria called “Bordetella pertussis.” It causes a characteristic “whooping” sound during coughing. The bacteria can affect both children and adults.

Once exposed to this bacteria, symptoms may start to develop sometime between one to three weeks of exposure – although most people present within 10 days. The pertussis infection often, but not always, consists of the following three stages:

Stage 1: Patients have symptoms that are indistinguishable from a regular upper respiratory infection or a typical cold: fever, sore throat, runny or stuffy nose, sneezing, mild cough. This stage often lasts 7-10 days.

Stage 2: The cold symptoms improve while the cough worsens. Patients develop coughing spasms with a characteristic “whoop” that sounds like a high-pitched gasp, especially in kids. It can sound like choking or gagging, but not everyone with whooping cough makes this noise with a cough. It can also be accompanied by the sweats, facial flushing, or even vomiting after a coughing spasm. This stage lasts 1-6 weeks, and can even go for as long as 10 weeks.

Stage 3:  The cough starts to finally subside over 2-3 weeks.

How is Whooping Cough Diagnosed?

After performing an exam and listening to your cough, your doctor may perform a special swab of the mucus in the back of your nose and throat. Your doctor may also order a blood test and/or chest x-ray, although they are not always diagnostic.

How is Whooping Cough Treated?

Pertussis is often treated with a course of oral antibiotics. However, babies often need to be hospitalized in order to receive oxygen, intravenous fluids, and close observation. More than half of all infants under age 1 who contract pertussis wind up being hospitalized.

Why the Big Whoop Over the Whooping Cough?

For adults infected with pertussis, it’s quite an annoyance, to say the least. But thankfully, it’s rarely deadly. Adults tend to have a milder version due to their stronger immunity. However, adults can infect children, particularly those under 6 months, who may unfortunately suffer more serious consequences from pertussis – including pneumonia, decreased oxygenation to the brain, pneumothorax (a “hole” in the lung), seizures, hemorrhaging in the brain, and even death.

In fact, whooping cough gained a lot of media attention in 2010 when over 9,000 people were infected with it in the state of California. This epidemic killed 10 babies at that time. And this could all have been prevented with more widespread vaccination.

How to Prevent the Whooping Cough?

Thankfully, there’s a vaccine to prevent pertussis. Young children receive a total of 5 doses of this vaccine, while older kids receive one extra dose at age 11. 

It’s really important for adults to be vaccinated with one dose as well, most especially if they are around newborns. Babies less than 6 months are most vulnerable since they have not been sufficiently vaccinated yet. Therefore, a federal advisory panel just recently changed its recommendations to include all adults, even those over age 65, to receive one dose of the Tdap vaccine in hopes of preventing the spread of this potentially tragic disease to babies.

So if you haven’t been vaccinated, ask your doctor for this vital, life-saving vaccine.

For more information, check out the CDC pertussis web page

Don’t forget to join the House Call Doctor’s Facebook and Twitter pages, where you can read my health-related tips and suggest future topics!

Please note that all content here is strictly for informational purposes only. This content does not substitute any medical advice, and does not replace any medical judgment or reasoning by your own personal health provider. Please always seek a licensed physician in your area regarding all health related questions and issues.

Boy Blowing His Nose image from Shutterstock

About the Author

Sanaz Majd, MD

Dr. Sanaz Majd, a board-certified Family Medicine physician who graduated from Drexel University College of Medicine in Philadelphia. She sees everything from pediatrics to geriatrics, but her special interests are women's health and patient education. She also loves to teach, and has been doing so since her college days.

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