Whooping Cough (Pertussis)
What is whooping cough?
Pertussis is a respiratory infection caused by bacteria called Bordetella pertussis. It is also called whooping cough because of the characteristic sound of the cough it causes.
The illness has 3 phases. Each phase lasts about 2 weeks. The first phase usually starts with a runny nose, mild cough, and pink eyes. The second phase is an increasingly severe cough that can last 2 to 4 weeks. The cough usually comes in spasms and ends with a high-pitched whoop. Often the coughing causes a child to vomit or his or her face to turn red or blue. Coughing spasms are usually worse at night. In infants, whooping cough is a very serious illness and the baby may need to be hospitalized. The third phase is recovery. This may last another 2 to 4 weeks as the cough slowly improves.
How is it diagnosed?
Your healthcare provider will ask about your child’s symptoms and medical history and examine your child. Your provider may get a sample of mucus from your child’s nose to test for bacteria.
What is the treatment?
Your healthcare provider will prescribe antibiotic medicine to kill the bacteria causing the infection. If you start taking an antibiotic early in the infection, it may shorten the course of the illness and prevent severe symptoms. However, in most cases the antibiotic will keep you from spreading the infection to others, but you will keep having a cough for a couple weeks.
A humidifier in your child’s room may also help. (The humidifier must be cleaned every 2 to 3 days.) Gentle suction with a bulb syringe and saline water may be used to get rid of thick secretions in the nose and throat. Do not give your child cough medicines unless specifically told to do so by a healthcare provider. These medicines do not to help coughing in young children and can have serious side effects.
Encourage your child to drink lots of clear fluids to prevent the mucus in the lungs from becoming sticky and to help loosen the mucous in the nose and throat. Fluids also help your child clear secretions and breathe easier.
Avoidance of cough triggers
Keep your children away from things that trigger coughing, such as smoke, perfumes, or pollutants.
Care of exposed persons
All people in close contact with your child may be asked to take an antibiotic to prevent them from getting sick or passing it to other people. This includes people in your immediate household and any day care contacts your child may have.
How can whooping cough be prevented?
It is important to have your child immunized against all preventable illnesses, including whooping cough, at their regularly scheduled health checkups. The pertussis vaccine protects against whooping cough and is included in children’s tetanus shots, starting at 2 months of age. Babies should get 4 pertussis shots during their first 18 months of life, followed by booster shots as they get older.
A type of tetanus-diphtheria-acellular pertussis booster called a Tdap shot is now recommended for all school aged children, teens and once as an adult to protect themselves against pertussis. Getting vaccinated with Tdap is especially important for families expecting a baby or with new infants.
Pregnant women, who require their adult booster, can receive this once they are past their 26th week of pregnancy.
Whooping cough is a very dangerous disease, especially for babies. The risk of suffering and death caused by whooping cough is far greater than the possible side effects of the shot. Complications of whooping cough can include pneumonia, seizures and death.
There are 2 main ways to prevent the spread of whooping cough:
· Vaccinate exposed children
· Give antibiotics to anyone who has been exposed to the disease.
When should I see the doctor?
See IMMEDIATELY if:
· Coughing spasms cause your child’s face, hands, or feet to turn blue.
· Your child stops breathing with any coughing spells.
· Your child’s breathing becomes fast or difficult.
· Your child has a seizure.
· Your child is not responding to you or seems lethargic (sluggish).
· Your child is not drinking.
· Your child develops a fever higher than 40° C (104° F).
· Your child starts to act very sick.
See within 24 hours if:
· Your child is less than 6 months old and has coughing spasms.
· Your child has been exposed to someone with whooping cough.
· Your child gets a fever.
· Your child’s cough lasts longer than 3 weeks.
· You have other questions or concerns.
For more information:
Nova Scotia Department of Health and Wellness:
Health Prince Edward Island:
Public Agency of Canada: