Whooping Cough

Aisha Rehan

What is it?

Whooping cough, or pertussis is a highly contagious respiratory disease. It can cause violent and rapid coughing, over and over, until the air is gone from the lungs and you are forced to inhale with a loud "whooping" sound. Pertussis can affect people of all ages, but can be very serious, even deadly, for babies less than a year old. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), worldwide, there are an estimated 16 million cases of pertussis and about 195,000 deaths per year.

Classified as Bacteria

It is caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis.

Chain of Infection

  1. Infectious Agent: Bordetella Pertussis
  2. Reservoir: Human
  3. Portal of Exit: Mucus secretion; cough/sneeze
  4. Mode of Transmission: Airborne droplets
  5. Portal of Entry: Inhaling
  6. Susceptible Host: Person who is exposed; unvaccinated

Incubation Period and Length of Infection

According to the CDC, the incubation period of pertussis is commonly 7–10 days, with a range of 4–21 days, and rarely may be as long as 42 days.

These are the three stages:

  1. Catarrhal Stage: Stages 1 and 2. 1-2 weeks, symptoms like common cold
  2. Paroxysmal Stage: Stage 3. 1-6 weeks (additional), 10 weeks: serious. Named after the symptoms, "paroxysm," or violent coughing fit. This is the stage where the person tries to gasp for air in between episodes.
  3. Convalescent Stage: Stages 4 and 5. 2-3+ weeks, recovery period. Less mucus in airway, and gradually experience less paroxysms.

Signs and Symptoms

Early Symptoms

The disease usually starts with cold-like symptoms and maybe a mild cough or fever. In babies, the cough can be minimal or not even there

Early symptoms can last for 1 to 2 weeks and usually include:

  • Runny nose
  • Low-grade fever (generally minimal throughout the course of the disease)
  • Mild, occasional cough
  • Apnea – a pause in breathing (in babies)

Later-stage Symptoms

After 1 to 2 weeks and as the disease progresses, the traditional symptoms of pertussis may appear and include:

  • Paroxysms (fits) of many, rapid coughs followed by a high-pitched "whoop"
  • Vomiting (throwing up) during or after coughing fits
  • Exhaustion (very tired) after coughing fits


Whooping Cough or pertussis is usually treated with antibiotics, however, if it is more severe, then it may require treatment in the hospital. Babies are at greatest risk for serious complications from pertussis. There are several antibiotics available to treat pertussis, and once you go to the doctor, they will explain how it should be properly treated (what antibiotics to take and such).

It is important to remember that the earlier that pertussis is treated, the better. Treatment may make your infection less serious if it is started early, before coughing fits begin. It can also help prevent spreading the disease to close people who have spent a lot of time around the infected person.



The best way to prevent pertussis among babies, children, teens, and adults is to get vaccinated.

In the United States, the recommended pertussis vaccine for babies and children is called DTaP. This is a combination vaccine that helps protect against three diseases: diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis.


Pertussis is spread by coughing and sneezing while in close contact with others, who then breathe in the pertussis bacteria. Practicing good hygiene is always recommended to prevent the spread of respiratory illnesses. To practice good hygiene you should:

  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze.
  • Put your used tissue in the waste basket.
  • Cough or sneeze into your upper sleeve or elbow, not your hands, if you don't have a tissue.
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds.
  • Use an alcohol-based hand rub if soap and water are not available.

Government Agencies Response to Pertussis

Here are what the CDC and Texas Department of State Health Services have to say about Whooping Cough: