Whooping Cough

Whooping cough is a contagious bacterial infection which affects the lungs and airways. It causes severe bouts of coughing and may last for up to three months. It is spread in droplets of water from mucus, which can be inhaled.

  1. Symptoms are similar to a cold but more intense
  2. Caused by Bordetella pertussis bacteria
  3. Treated with antibiotics and self-management measures

If you are worried about a whooping cough and would like to speak to a GMC-registered doctor, you can do so by booking an appointment through our online video consultation service. Consultation slots are available at a suitable time for you.

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What is whooping cough?

Whooping cough is a bacterial infection that affects the lungs and breathing tubes. It causes severe bouts of coughing, which usually last between 6 to 8 weeks, but can persist for up to three months. It affects young children more than any other age group, and its name is derived from the ‘whoop’ sounds which are made as a consequence of inhalations of breath during a bout of coughing. The incubation period is usually around a week, and a person is infectious for around three weeks following the outbreak of symptoms.

The infection is more common among children, but adults can contract it. It’s a cyclical disease which peaks in incidence every three or four years, and the last known peak was in 2012. Whooping cough used to be endemic in the UK, before a routine vaccination was introduced in the 1950s. Its prevalence has dramatically fallen since, but spikes have occurred.

What symptoms does whooping cough cause?

There is a common pattern in cases of whooping cough, where three phases occur. The first phase is known as the catarrhal phase, and is characterised by symptoms such as a sore throat, a general feeling of being unwell and a high temperature. The second phase is called the paroxysmal phase, and is marked by the characteristic ‘whooping’ sound of the condition. The cough worsens during this period, and you may experience intense bouts, which usually last between one and two minutes at a time. The last phase is known as the convalescent phase, during which period the coughing eases and becomes increasingly intermittent.

If someone hasn’t been immunised and they suspect they may have developed the condition, a course of antibiotics can be prescribed, which may stop the infection from spreading. A vaccination for whooping cough is offered to all children between 2 and 4 months old. However, it is not 100% effective, so you should still take precautions around people who have become infected.

What complications can whooping cough lead to?

Complications are unlikely, but they are possible, particularly in babies. Whooping cough can leave you more prone to developing pneumonia, as bacteria can pass more easily around the lungs and lead to a secondary infection. In rare circumstances, the effect of the pressure from coughing can cause a blood vessel to burst, which may result in a nosebleed. Furthermore, the pressure from coughing can have an adverse effect on the stomach wall, which may split, causing a hernia.

Most people with the infection can expect to make a full recovery. Severe complications are more likely to occur in babies under the age of six months. Having recovered, you’ll be immune to whooping cough.

If you have a severe cough and you are worried about what condition it might be related to, you can use the Treated.com live service to consult with a doctor securely online. One of our GMC registered doctors will be able to give you advice on how you can manage the coughing, and let you know whether you will need further investigation.

Page last reviewed:  16/06/2020
Diagnosis and treatment

What are the causes of whooping cough syndrome?

Whooping cough is caused by the bordetella pertussis bacteria, which produces the pertussis toxin. It’s transmitted between people via direct contact with water droplets from respiratory mucous.

How is whooping cough diagnosed?

A doctor will be able to diagnose whooping cough by assessing clinical symptoms and taking a swab of mucus.

There are three phases of whooping cough. Initial symptoms are indistinguishable from a normal respiratory tract infection. Severe coughing then develops, particularly at night, before the infection gradually starts to clear up.

If clinical symptoms cause suspicion, a doctor will look to perform some tests.

Will I need tests?

Usually, a suspected case of whooping cough will warrant testing. This will involve taking a swab from the nose, which will be sent to a laboratory for analysis. It’s also possible that a doctor will conduct a blood test, particularly for adults, to see if antibodies are being produced in response to the bacteria.

How is whooping cough managed?

Whooping cough can be managed in two ways: via a course of antibiotics and by implementing general self-help measures. If the infection is diagnosed quickly (within 3 weeks of the infection) antibiotics such as clarithromycin, azithromycin and erythromycin can all be prescribed. Although medication doesn’t clear whooping cough itself, it does stop the bacteria from being infectious and spreading to other people.

Besides antibiotics, you should take adequate rest while you have the condition. It’s important to drink lots of fluids and take painkillers, such as paracetamol, when necessary. Using cough medicines is not recommended, as they have proven to be ineffective.

Page last reviewed:  16/06/2020
Questions and Answers

How is whooping cough treated?

Whooping cough can be treated with antibiotics within the first few weeks of contracting the condition, but this does not have a significant impact on the length of time that a whooping cough will last. Self-help measures can help cope with the coughing and general feeling of being unwell. These include resting as much as possible, and taking paracetamol or ibuprofen when needed.

How long will it take for me to recover?

A whooping cough infection will usually last around 6-8 weeks, but it may take longer for the cough to resolve fully. Some cases may last up to 12 weeks. The main phase of coughing usually occurs between weeks three and eight of the infection, and after this period it will become less severe.

Can I consult a doctor about whooping cough online?

If you would like some advice on how you can manage a whooping cough, our GMC-registered doctors may be able to help. You can book an appointment to speak to one of them using our secure appointments facility, at a convenient time for you.

Page last reviewed:  16/06/2020

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