What is whooping cough?

Whooping cough is an infectious disease also called Pertussis. It is an infection of the airways and the mucus layers lining it.

It affects the windpipe (trachea) and the branches of the windpipe or the bronchi.

The characteristic feature of the condition is a typical hacking cough that is followed by a sharp intake of breath which sounds like a “whoop”.

The condition is also called the “100 day cough”. Some patients also develop other features like fever, runny nose, vomiting after coughing bouts etc. (1, 2, 3)

Causes of whooping cough

Pertussis is caused by a bacterium called Bordetella pertussis. It can be highly infectious and may spread from person to person via droplets in the air that are released on coughing or sneezing. (1, 2, 3)

Who does whooping cough affect?

Whooping cough affects babies and children more often than adults and teenagers.

In young children and babies the condition may even be life threatening or fatal.

Once exposed the infection takes around seven days to manifest.

Symptoms of whooping cough

Initial symptoms may include a runny nose, fever and cough. The cough worsens as the disease progresses.

In babies the coughing bouts may occur after feeding. There may be mucus discharge from the mouth and nose and the baby may go red or blue in the face.

The coughing may be severe enough to lead to nose bleeds or bleeding spots in the eyes (subconjunctival hemorrhages). (4)

Whooping cough complications

Whooping cough as such may not be fatal but may be complicated with other severe features like pneumonia, bronchiectasis (lung condition that leads to enlargement of the smaller airways) and even seizures.

The coughing bouts in babies can also cause asphyxia or apnoea where there is sudden stoppage of breathing leading to sudden death. (4)

Prevention of whooping cough

On the bright side, whooping cough is a disease that can be prevented by vaccination.

Vaccines exists to be administered at ages two, three and four months of age and to be repeated before starting school at about three years of age.

Vaccination of all children routinely has caused a dramatic reduction in the number of cases of whooping cough. However, children might still get the condition.

Sometimes the effects of the whooping cough vaccination reduce over time making a person prone to get the infection as an adult.

This is seen in individuals with low or compromised immunity or those travelling to areas where contact with infected individuals cannot be avoided.

Infections in adults are usually mild and less serious.

Infections in pregnant women however maybe severe. In these cases there also heightened risk of the mother passing on the infection to her baby. (1, 2, 3)

Further Reading

Last Updated: Feb 27, 2019

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Written by

Dr. Ananya Mandal

Dr. Ananya Mandal is a doctor by profession, lecturer by vocation and a medical writer by passion. She specialized in Clinical Pharmacology after her bachelor's (MBBS). For her, health communication is not just writing complicated reviews for professionals but making medical knowledge understandable and available to the general public as well.


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