What Is Whooping Cough (Pertussis)? What Is The Whooping Cough Sound?

What Is Whooping Cough (Pertussis)? What Is The Whooping Cough Sound?

What Is Whooping Cough (Pertussis)? What Is The Whooping Cough Sound?


It’s that time of year again. Kids and adults everywhere are coughing and feverish. Most illnesses like this are the result of viruses like influenza or the common cold. But sometimes it is more worrisome and dangerous.


One such infection is whooping cough. Whooping cough, or pertussis is an infection of the respiratory system caused by the bacteria Bordetella pertussis (or B. pertussis). We recognize it for it’s severe coughing spells, which can sometimes end in a “whooping cough sound” when the person breathes in.


Whooping cough mainly affects infants younger than 6 months old before they have received their pertussis immunizations (which are given at 2, 4, 6 months to start). By age 10, many kids have waning immunity, making adults and adolescents common carriers, often inadvertently infecting infants or non-immunized individuals.


Before a vaccine was available, pertussis killed up to 10,000 people a year in North America. Immunization reduced this number dramatically, though we have noticed a resurgence of pertussis infections in recent years. This year there were outbreaks in Ontario and Alberta with hundreds of new infections.


Signs and symptoms of whooping cough

The first symptoms of whooping cough are similar to a common cold:


After 1 to 2 weeks, the cough evolves into coughing spells. Often kids will turn red or purple during a coughing spell, which can last minutes. As the spell settles, the child will often make a characteristic whooping cough sound. Some kids will vomit. In between spells most kids are well and do not appear sick.


Many newborns or infants who are affected will not have the characteristic ‘whoop’, but instead have gasping or difficulty breathing. Some will have episodes of apnea, with a pause in their breathing, sometimes turning red or purple from poor oxygen delivery.


Adults and teens with whooping cough may have milder symptoms, such as a prolonged cough or coughing without the whoop.


How contagious is whooping cough?

Whooping cough is highly contagious. The bacteria spread from person to person through tiny drops of fluid from an infected person’s nose or mouth. These go into the air when the person sneezes, coughs, or even during a conversation. Inhaling the drops or getting them on your hands and touching your mouth or nose can lead to infection. Infected people are most contagious in the first 2 weeks of illness.


Preventing Pertussis Infection

Whooping cough can be prevented with the pertussis vaccine, which is part of the DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus, acellular pertussis) immunization. DTaP immunizations are given in five doses before a child is six years of age.


Due to waning immunity, it is now recommended to give kids ages 11-18 a booster shot of the new combination vaccine (called Tdap, or Adacel), ideally when they’re 11 or 12 years old, instead of the Td booster routinely given at this age. Adults that have not had a Tdap vaccine benefit from it as well, and this may prevent the spread of pertussis to their unvaccinated, young children. Pregnant women especially should receive this vaccine in the second half of pregnancy.


Approximately 80% of non-immunized family members will develop whooping cough if they live in the same house as someone who has the infection. For this reason, we prophylax anyone who comes into close contact with someone who has pertussis with antibiotics. Young kids who have not received all five doses of the vaccine may require a booster dose if exposed to an infected family member.



  • If you suspect your child has pertussis, have him seen by a physician
  • Nose samples will be examined for the bacteria
  • Confirmed cases of pertussis are treated with 2 weeks of antibiotics
  • Preventive antibiotics or vaccine boosters may be required for close contacts and family members to prevent others from getting infected
  • Children with severe infections, and infants younger than 6 months may require hospital treatment with monitoring, suctioning, and fluid and oxygen supplementation
  • For children recovering at home, typical viral cold and flu treatment is recommended.
  • If you suspect symptoms of croup, please see your doctor as there is other medication for this illness
  • Want more information on cough medicine for kids or a natural remedy for cough?
Dina M. Kulik, MD, FRCPC, PEM

About Dina M. Kulik, MD, FRCPC, PEM

Dina is a wife, mother of 4, and adrenaline junky. She loves to share children’s health information from her professional and personal experience. More About Dr Dina.

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