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Whooping Cough (Pertussis) in Adults

What is whooping cough (pertussis)?

Whooping cough (pertussis) is very contagious. It mainly affects infants and young children, but adults can also get it. Whooping cough is caused by a bacterium called Bordetella pertussis. Symptoms include coughing spells that end with a "whooping" sound as air is breathed in. Whooping cough caused thousands of deaths in the 1930s and 1940s. The pertussis vaccine has made the death rate go down dramatically. Pertussis vaccines work very well. But if pertussis is circulating in the community, there is a possibility that even a fully vaccinated person could catch the disease. Babies who are too young to get the vaccine are also at very high risk of catching pertussis. The illness can be very serious, even sometimes fatal, in young infants. Many babies infected with pertussis have caught it from an adult.

What are the symptoms of whooping cough?

The disease starts like the common cold, with a runny nose or congestion, sneezing, and sometimes a mild cough or fever. Usually, after a week or two, severe coughing begins. The following are the most common symptoms of whooping cough. But each person may have slightly different symptoms. Infants younger than age 6 months may not have a classic whooping cough, or it may be difficult to hear. Instead of coughing, infants may have a pause in their breathing (apnea), which is very serious. Talk with your healthcare provider or call 911 right away if you notice pauses in your breathing. Symptoms of whooping cough may include:

  • Coughing, violently and rapidly, until all the air has left the lungs and a person is forced to inhale. This causes a "whooping" sound.

  • Sneezing that continues

  • Fluid draining from the nose

  • Fever

  • Sore, watery eyes

  • Lips, tongue, and nailbeds that turn blue during coughing spells

Whooping cough can last up to 10 weeks. It can lead to pneumonia and other complications.

The symptoms of whooping cough may look like other health conditions. Always talk with your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is whooping cough diagnosed?

In addition to doing a complete health history and physical exam, your healthcare provider may take a sample of fluid from your nose. This is sent to a lab to confirm the diagnosis.

What is the treatment for whooping cough?

Your healthcare provider will figure out the best treatment for you based on: 

  • How old you are

  • Your overall health and past health

  • How sick you are

  • How well you can handle specific medicines, procedures, or therapies

  • How long the condition is expected to last

  • Your opinion or preference

In adults, antibiotics are given to pregnant women within 6 weeks of the beginning of the cough. Antibiotics help to prevent the spread of infection after 5 days of treatment, but don't affect how long the illness lasts or how severe it is. Other treatment may include:

  • Keeping warm

  • Eating small meals often

  • Drinking plenty of fluids

  • Limiting things that cause you to cough

You may need to stay in the hospital if you have a severe case of pertussis.

Can whooping cough be prevented?

Although a vaccine has been developed against whooping cough, cases of the disease still happen. This is especially true in infants younger than age 6 months.

Since the 1980s, the number of cases of pertussis has risen, especially in children and teens, and in babies younger than 6 months. This is because fewer children are getting vaccinated in some communities. Also, the current vaccine doesn't last as long as the older versions of the vaccine. This means more adults are now susceptible to whooping cough after the vaccine has worn off. 

If you did not get a booster for tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (Tdap) as a preteen or teen, you should get this booster. All adults should get a tetanus-diphtheria (Td) booster every 10 years.

The CDC recommends that children get 5 DTaP shots for maximum protection against pertussis. A DTaP shot is a combination vaccine that protects against 3 diseases: diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis. The first 3 shots are given at ages 2, 4, and 6 months. The fourth shot is given between ages 15 and 18 months; the fifth shot is given when a child enters school at ages 4 to 6 years. At their regular checkups, preteens ages 11 or 12  years should get a dose of Tdap. 

The CDC recommends that pregnant women get a whooping cough vaccine in the third trimester of every pregnancy. This is so that antibodies can be transferred to the fetus before birth. Always talk with your healthcare provider for advice. 

Online Medical Reviewer: Lentnek, Arnold, MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Sather, Rita, RN
Date Last Reviewed: 11/1/2016
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