Whooping cough

Last updated:

Reviewed by:

Dr Bryony Henderson

, Lead GP at Livi

Medically reviewed

Whooping cough is a bacterial infection that affects your lungs and connected breathing tubes – including your throat, windpipe and bronchial tubes. Read on to find out the key symptoms and how it is treated.

What is whooping cough?

Whooping cough is a highly infectious bacterial infection named after the characteristic noise it can cause – a intake of sharp breath during coughing fits.

Whooping cough is infectious in the first 3 weeks or until 48 hours after antibiotics are started. It’s spread by respiratory droplets released when coughing.

What are the symptoms of whooping cough?

Whooping cough usually starts with a cold. After a week or two symptoms include:

  • Coughing fits that can last a few minutes. This is normally worse at night. Severe coughing fits can lead to seizures.

  • Making a whoop noise when gasping for breath between coughs

  • Coughing up thick mucus

  • These symptoms generally last about 6 weeks.

Prolonged severe coughing can cause symptoms like:

  • Rib pain

  • Vomiting

  • Nosebleeds

  • Hernias

How common is whooping cough?

Whooping cough is relatively rare – diagnosed in roughly 4 per 100,000 people a year.

What causes whooping cough?

Whooping cough is caused by a bacterial infection called Bordetella pertussis. This produces toxins and damage to your air tubes that cause you to cough and feel unwell.

How is whooping cough diagnosed?

Whooping cough is normally diagnosed based on the symptoms you or your child are experiencing. Sometimes a doctor will take a swab of your throat or a sputum (spit) sample that can be looked at in a lab for whooping cough bacteria.

How is whooping cough treated?

Whooping cough treatment depends on how long you’ve had whooping cough, how old you are, and how bad your infection is.

If your baby is under 6 months or if you have a severe whooping cough, you’re likely to need treatment in hospital. This may involve:

  • Oxygen

  • Feeding through a tube

  • Fluids into a vein

If you’re diagnosed within 3 weeks of symptoms starting, you may be given antibiotics to reduce the time you’re contagious for. However, antibiotics may not reduce all symptoms.

You should stay off of school, nursery, or work for 48 hours after starting antibiotics or until you’ve had symptoms for 3 weeks.

ou can help your symptoms improve by:

  • Getting plenty of rest

  • Drinking lots of fluids

  • Taking paracetamol or ibuprofen if you’re allowed. If you’re not sure, check the information leaflet or ask a doctor.

How long does whooping cough last?

Whooping cough can take between 10-14 weeks to completely go away, but it usually clears up sooner.

How does whooping cough affect children?

Whooping cough is more common in young children and infants and can be more serious at this age. Babies under 6 months with signs of whooping cough should be seen by a doctor because they have an increased risk of:

  • Dehydration, your baby may feed less than normal and produce fewer wet nappies

  • Breathing difficulties

  • Seizures

  • Pneumonia

How to prevent whooping cough

There is a vaccine for whooping cough that helps prevent babies and children from getting the condition.

The whooping cough vaccine is given at:

  • 8, 12 and 16 weeks as part of the 6 in 1 vaccine

  • To pre-school children in the 4 in 1 pre-school booster vaccine

There’s also a whooping cough vaccine for pregnancy. This is ideally given at between 16-32 weeks of pregnancy.

If you’ve been vaccinated, you can still get whooping cough but it’s likely to be milder and shorter.

When should I speak to a doctor?

See a doctor if:

  • You or your child has a bad cough that’s getting worse

  • You’re pregnant and have been in contact with someone with whooping cough

  • Your baby is less than 6 months old and has symptoms of whooping cough

  • You have a weakened immune system and have been in contact with someone with whooping cough

Go to A&E or call 999 if:

  • Your child has a seizure

  • You or your child have chest pain that’s worse when coughing or breathing

  • Your child has episodes or holding their breath and their lips of face turn blue

  • You or your child are having difficulties breathing

Last updated:
Reviewed by:
Dr Bryony Henderson, Lead GP at Livi