Early symptoms of whooping cough (pertussis)

The early symptoms of whooping cough – otherwise known as pertussis; or, the ‘100 day cough’ in China – are similar to those of a common cold. As a matter of fact, whooping cough – so named because of violent, rapid coughing that produces a loud ‘whooping’ sound – often goes unsuspected or undiagnosed until the patient experiences more serious symptoms. This respiratory tract infection progresses in three distinct stages, and the symptoms vary accordingly.

Whooping cough symptoms




1 (catarrhal)

1 to 2

·         Runny nose.

·         Low-grade fever (generally minimal through the course of the disease).

·         Nasal congestion.

·         Red, watery eyes.

·         Mild, occasional cough.

·         Apnea in babies.

2 (paroxysmal)

1-6 to 10

·         Fits of many, rapid coughs followed by a high-pitched ‘whoop.’

·         Vomiting during or after coughing fits.

·         Exhaustion following coughing fits (paroxysms).

3 (convalescent)

2 to 3

·         Gradual recovery.

·         Coughing decreases but fits may return.


Whooping cough is caused by the Bordetella pertussis bacterium. It attaches to small, hair-like extensions called cilia which line part of the upper respiratory system, and releases toxins that cause the airways to swell. Infants younger than 6 months of age who have not been immunized and children aged 11-18 years whose immunity is wearing off are very susceptible to pertussis. Additionally, this is a very contagious infection. The disease is more often than not though airborne droplets from an infected individuals’ nose or mouth when they sneeze, laugh, and yes, when they cough – whooping cough can be so violent as to bruise or crack ribs, cause an abdominal hernia, and break blood vessels in the skin and the whites of the eyes. Other potential complications are:

·         In babies younger than one year

-        Pneumonia.

-        Convulsions.

-        Slowed or stopped breathing.

-        Encephalopathy.

-        Death.

·         In teenagers and adults

-        Loss of weight.

-        Bladder control loss.

-        Fainting.

Sharing the same breathing space with an infected person for long periods is another risk factor. People should go to a doctor if they or their children throw up, turn red or blue, struggle to breathe, or inhale with a whooping sound as a result of prolonged coughing fits. The doctor can diagnose pertussis based on the early symptoms of whooping cough, as well as with the aid of a few tests, such as:

·         Physical examination

·         Lab tests involving a sample of mucus taken with a swab or syringe filled with saline from the back of the throat through the nose.

·         Blood tests.

The earlier the infection is detected, the easier to treat it. Administering antibiotics before the paroxysmal stage can relieve the symptoms during the first 1-2 weeks. Patients are contagious from the beginning of the first stage, and reach the apex of their infectiousness up to about 2 weeks after the cough starts. However, antibiotic treatment can also reduce the time that an infected person is contagious. Children with pertussis may be treated at home, though severe cases may require hospitalization. Either way, the parents and patients must comply with the recommendations of healthcare providers.

Treatment for whooping cough

At home

In the hospital

Parents should:

·         Follow the antibiotic schedule exactly as prescribed by a doctor.

·         Keep the free from irritants (i.e., smoke, dust, chemical fumes).

·         Use a vaporizer.

·         Give the child plenty of fluids (water, juices, soups) and fruits to avoid dehydration.

·         Feed the child small meals every few hours to help prevent vomiting.

·         The child may require suctioning of mucus to help keeping breathing passages clear. Breathing is monitored and oxygen will be given if necessary.

·         Intravenous fluids might be required if the child shows signs of dehydration or has difficulty eating.

·         Precautions, such as practicing good hand hygiene and keeping surfaces clean, should be observed.


The best way to prevent whooping cough across all age groups is to get vaccinated.

Whooping Cough Vaccine Recommendations



Birth-6 years

·         DTaP at:

·         2 months.

·         4 months.

·         6 months.

·         15-18 months.

·         4-6 years.

11-18 years

·         One dose of Tdap at 11-12 years.

·         Teens who didn't get Tdap as a preteen should get one dose on their next doctor’s appointment.

19 years and older

·         One dose of Tdap for adults who did not get Tdap as a preteen or teen.

·         Tdap can be administered regardless of when you got your last tetanus shot.


Newborns may not be able to get vaccinated, but the CDC recommends mothers-to-be can get a Tdap vaccine between the 27th and 36th week of each pregnancy to produce antibodies that can be passed on to the fetus and provide short-term protection early in life. Additionally, teens and adults may require bolster shots as their immunity starts to fade.

Related: What USA could learn from Pakistan vaccination campaigns