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Whooping Cough: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Whooping Cough: Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Whooping Cough

What is Whooping Cough?

Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, is an acute and highly contagious bacterial respiratory infection caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis. It causes violent, uncontrollable coughing that sometimes makes it difficult to breathe. The coughing spasms are usually punctuated by a distinctive and high-pitched “whoop” sound when the patient inhales. Luckily, whooping cough is preventable. However, even though there is a vaccine, doctors struggle to control the disease. There have been large outbreaks in the U.S. in recent years (x).

Before the pertussis vaccine, whooping cough was considered a childhood disease (x). Whooping cough is more common in infants under six months and young children between 11 and 18. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported that before the vaccine, the infection was a major cause of childhood deaths in the U.S. (x). Today, whooping cough primarily affects children who have not received all of their vaccinations and teenagers and adults with a weakened immune system. Immunity also fades and people can still contract the disease if they have been vaccinated (x).

Causes of Whooping Cough

As previously mentioned, whooping cough is caused by a bacteria called Bordetella pertussis. It only thrives and multiplies in humans, as they are the only known reservoir for the bacteria. It attaches to the respiratory cells and causes inflammation (x). The disease spreads through coughing, sneezing or coming into contact with contaminated surfaces (x). It is highly contagious. Even people who have been vaccinated can contract the disease if they come into contact with it (x, x).

The disease is recurring because immunity wears off over time and people become susceptible to it as they get older. Contracting the disease or getting the vaccination does not guarantee permanent immunity (x, x).

Risk Factors for Whooping Cough

Because the vaccine does not guarantee immunity, there are risk factors that make people more likely to contract the infection. Adults who have not received the whooping cough vaccine, people with a weakened immune system and pregnant women are at a higher risk of developing whooping cough. People who come into contact with someone who is infected also put themselves at risk, even if they have been vaccinated (x, x, x, x).

Symptoms of Whooping Cough

Once an individual is infected with whooping cough, it can take seven to 10 days before symptoms can appear. Sometimes it can last for longer periods up to three weeks. The symptoms appear in three phases (x, x).

Catarrhal Stage

The first stage is the most contagious (x) and lasts for seven to 10 days. The infection usually begins with cold-like symptoms:

Paroxysmal Stage

In this stage, which usually begins after a week or two, the symptoms worsen. This stage varies from one to 10 weeks. The symptoms are (x, x, x, x):

Intense Coughing Fits

Thick mucus membrane accumulates in the airways, causing violent and uncontrollable coughing fits called paroxysmal cough. The cough is usually severe and prolonged. But the coughing fits are more frequent at night.

High-Pitched “Whoop” Sound

As inflammation worsens, the airways narrow, making it harder to breathe. It also causes a “whoop” sound as the individual tries to get breath back after a bout of coughing. Rapid coughing causes air to leave the lungs and when there is no air in the lungs, the patient is forced to inhale with a whooping sound.

Extreme Fatigue

Paroxysmal coughing makes patients try to grasp for air so that people feel exhausted after.


The extreme coughing fits can cause an individual to vomit, especially children. The cough produces large amounts of mucus that trigger vomiting.

Red or Blue Face

This symptom is common in infants. Sometimes whooping cough can cause the face to briefly turn purple, blue or red during a coughing fit from low oxygen levels in the blood (x).

People infected with whooping cough are still contagious at this stage. Symptoms in the paroxysmal stage may last anywhere from one to six weeks.

Convalescent Stage

In the final phase of whooping cough, the cough gradually improves. Coughing fits occur less often and usually disappear in two to three weeks. Starting about two or three weeks after the cough, individuals are no longer contagious, but they are at risk of developing other infections, which may slow down the recovery process. Sometimes adults with whooping cough may have a cough that won’t go away (x, x).

Symptoms in Children

Most infants do not develop paroxysmal cough or the distinct “whoop” sound. Infants will likely have recurring episodes where they vomit after coughing, temporarily stop breathing and their faces turn blue from lack of oxygen (x).

Whooping Cough Symptoms

Complications of Whooping Cough

Adults infected with whooping cough may develop secondary complications, although they are less severe than in infants (x, x, x).

The violent coughing fits can also lead to fractured ribs and fainting. Adults are also at risk for seizures and hypoxemia, when the blood doesn’t receive enough oxygen.

Children and infants are at a higher risk of suffering from severe complications, especially babies in the first six months of life because their immune systems are still developing (x):

The most common complication in children is pneumonia, an infection in the lungs. It also causes the most deaths related to whooping cough. Sometimes whooping cough can be life threatening in children. In whooping cough-related deaths, approximately 90 percent of them were infants less than a year old (x, x, x).

Diagnosing Whooping Cough

It can be difficult to diagnose whooping cough in the initial phase because its symptoms mimic those of other common respiratory illnesses — bronchitis, a cold or the flu — until the paroxysm cough develops (x).

Nose or Throat Culture

In this test, a doctor takes a suction sample from the nose or throat and then examines it for evidence of the whooping cough causing bacteria, Bordetella pertussis (x).

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Blood Tests

The doctor may take a blood sample to check the number of white blood cells, which fight infections. A high white blood cell count indicates an infection (x).


A doctor may suggest a chest X-ray to check for fluid or inflammation in the lungs (x).

Treatment for Whooping Cough

If treatment begins early, the prognosis will be less severe, especially for infants. They are usually hospitalized for treatment, including IV fluids if they cannot keep food down. Treatment depends on the patient’s age and how long they have had the infection. However, the bacteria leaves the body after three weeks, even if the patient still has symptoms. At this point treatment will not resolve the illness (x, x, x).

Antibiotics are the primary treatment option since whooping cough is a bacterial infection. They are most effective during the initial stages of whooping cough. They can also prevent it from spreading (x).

Home Remedies

Older children and adult patients are usually treated at home. To help rid themselves of the illness, patients should rest and drink fluids to avoid dehydration. Eating smaller meals can help reduce vomiting after coughing fits. Keeping the hands clean, covering the mouth to cough and avoiding contact with other people can help prevent transmission (x).

Supplements for Whooping Cough

Ginger Root Extract Powder

Praised for its ability to boost the immune system by enabling the body to breakdown toxin accumulation in the body, ginger root also possesses antibacterial properties (x, x) and can help lower the risk of infection. As a dietary supplement, take 1,000 mg once daily. Take it with at least eight ounces of water to avoid heartburn.


An active ingredient of turmeric, curcumin is known to have antimicrobial potential against a number of microorganisms (x). Take one dose of up to 1,000 mg of curcumin extract powder daily with water or a meal.

N-acetylcysteine (NAC)

NAC is derived from the amino acid L-cysteine, which helps treat respiratory conditions. It can also help detoxify the body, as well as boost immunity (x). Take the powder in serving sizes of 600 mg up to three times per day.

Peppermint Oil

Inhaling peppermint oil can help unclog the sinuses and relieve a scratchy throat. It has menthol in it and has antibacterial properties. It can also act as an expectorant by helping lower the severity of coughing attacks (x). You can mix it with other oils and rub them on the back of the neck.

The Bottom Line

Whooping cough is a highly contagious disease caused by a bacterium called Bordetella pertussis. When an individual with whooping cough sneezes or coughs, the bacteria spread into the air. People with whooping cough may experience intense and rapid coughing bouts, which are usually accompanied by a “whoop” sound when the person takes a deep breath. Although it is preventable with a vaccine, many people still contract it because immunity can fade.

Symptoms are much more severe in infants and they are more likely to suffer complications. Whooping cough-related deaths mostly occur in unvaccinated infants less than a year old. Antibiotics treat whooping cough, but natural treatments like peppermint oil, ginger, curcumin and N-acetylcysteine can help boost the immune system and treat infection. However, these supplements should not be used on small children or infants.

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