How to Treat Whooping Cough in Children and Adults

Blog How to Treat Whooping Cough in Children and Adults

Posted on 8th Jan 2024

Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, is a highly contagious bacterial infection that can be especially dangerous for children. Characterized by its signature "whooping" sound during coughing fits, it can linger for weeks, causing significant discomfort and even posing health risks. However, with proper treatment and understanding, this illness can be managed effectively. Through this blog, let us get a thorough understanding of what a whooping cough is, and how it can effectively be treated with adults and children alike.

Understanding Whooping Cough Causes

Characterized by severe coughing fits and a distinctive "whooping" sound, whooping cough can be particularly challenging, but early detection and appropriate treatment are crucial for a successful recovery.

Whooping cough is caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis, which attacks the respiratory system. It spreads easily through coughs and sneezes, making young children particularly vulnerable as their immune systems aren’t fully developed.

Signs and Symptoms of Whooping Cough

There are different stages of whooping cough, in which the symptoms evolve over time. The whooping cough symptoms during different stages are:

Early Stage (1-2 weeks):Similar to a common cold with runny nose, mild fever, and occasional cough.

Paroxysmal Stage (2-4 weeks):The characteristic coughing fits emerge, often violent and rapid, ending with a high-pitched "whoop" as air is inhaled. Vomiting may occur after coughing.

Convalescent Stage (4-6 weeks):Coughing gradually subsides, but fatigue and occasional coughing can linger for months.

In infants, the whooping sound may not always be present, but the illness can manifest as episodes of apnea, where breathing temporarily stops. It is crucial to recognize these symptoms early on, as immediate treatment can significantly reduce the severity and duration of the illness.

Ensure that you immediately seek out your healthcare provider if you or your child face the following:

  • Nausea
  • Turning red or blue in the face
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Inhaling with a whooping sound
  • Signs of dehydration, such as a lack of tears, dry mouth, or sunken eyes.

Risk Factors Associated with Whooping Cough

Several factors can increase your risk of contracting whooping cough, also known as pertussis. Here are some key ones:

Incomplete or lack of vaccination:The whooping cough vaccine provides strong protection, but immunity gradually wanes over time. Children and adults who haven't received all recommended doses, haven't completed the schedule on time, or haven't received boosters are at higher risk. This includes infants younger than 12 months who haven't started their vaccinations and are particularly vulnerable to severe complications.

Close contact with an infected person: Whooping cough is highly contagious and spreads through aerosolized droplets released during coughing, sneezing, or talking. Close contact with someone with whooping cough significantly increases your risk.

Age:Babies and young children, especially those under 1 year old, are at the highest risk of serious complications and even death from whooping cough. This is because their immune systems are still developing and haven't had time to build strong defenses against the bacteria.

Pregnancy:The bacteria can be transmitted from mothers to their newborns, putting infants at high risk. Vaccination during pregnancy can help protect both mother and baby.

Underlying health conditions:People with chronic health conditions like asthma, lung disease, or a weakened immune system due to HIV or immunosuppressive medications are at higher risk of severe whooping cough complications.

Poor nutrition:Studies suggest that children with poor nutritional status may be more susceptible to pertussis infection.

Diagnosing Whooping Cough

If whooping cough is suspected, seeking medical attention is imperative for a proper diagnosis. Healthcare professionals often rely on a combination of clinical evaluation and laboratory tests to confirm the presence of the Bordetella pertussis bacterium.

Nose or Throat Culture: Nasopharyngeal swabs or other respiratory samples may be collected and tested to identify the presence of the bacteria.

Blood Test:Blood tests may be conducted with the help of your blood samples to check for antibodies specific to whooping cough.

Chest X-Ray: This test can help you know if you have fluid retention or inflammation in your lungs, which may point to pneumonia.

Remember, early diagnosis is key to preventing the spread of the infection and initiating timely treatment.

Treating Whooping Cough

Once your doctor has determined the presence of the Bordetella pertussis bacterium in your system, he/she will devise a treatment plan based on your symptoms and diagnosis. Whooping cough treatment will include:


Once diagnosed, healthcare providers typically prescribe antibiotics to treat whooping cough. The most commonly used antibiotics include azithromycin, clarithromycin, or erythromycin. These medications can help eliminate the bacteria from the respiratory system, reducing the severity and duration of symptoms. Antibiotic treatment is most effective when started during the early stages of the illness, emphasizing the importance of prompt medical attention.

It's crucial to complete the entire course of antibiotics, even if symptoms improve before the medication is finished. This helps ensure the complete eradication of the bacteria and reduces the risk of complications or relapse.

Supportive Care

In addition to antibiotics, supportive care plays a vital role in managing whooping cough symptoms and promoting a faster recovery. This includes:

  • Adequate Rest: Allow the body to focus its energy on fighting the infection by getting plenty of rest.
  • Hydration: Staying well-hydrated helps soothe the respiratory tract and prevents dehydration, which can be a concern during prolonged coughing fits.
  • Humidified Air: Using a humidifier in the bedroom can ease coughing and make breathing more comfortable, especially during the night.
  • Nutrition: A balanced diet rich in nutrients helps support the immune system's efforts to combat the infection.


Prevention is always better than cure, and vaccination remains the most effective strategy for preventing whooping cough. Vaccination is recommended for both children and adults, with the pertussis component included in the childhood diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (DTaP) vaccine. Boosters are also recommended for adolescents and adults, as immunity can wane over time.

Ensuring that children receive the full series of DTaP vaccinations and that adults receive recommended boosters can significantly reduce the risk of contracting and spreading whooping cough. Vaccination not only protects individuals but also contributes to community immunity, making it harder for the bacteria to circulate.


Whooping cough is a serious and potentially life-threatening respiratory infection that can affect individuals of all ages. Early recognition of symptoms, prompt medical attention, and appropriate treatment are essential for a successful recovery and to prevent the spread of the disease.

By staying informed, seeking timely medical care, and promoting vaccination, we can collectively work towards reducing the incidence of whooping cough and safeguarding the health and well-being of our communities.