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WHOOPING COUGH - a patient's guide


Whooping cough is dangerous in babies and young children. This article looks at the symptoms, treatment and prevention of the illness.


  • Whooping cough is a highly contagious disease
  • It causes excessive coughing fits following by a whooping sound
  • Under two-year-olds are most commonly affected
  • The illness lasts for about six weeks
  • It can lead to pneumonia, seizures, brain damage and death
  • Bed rest is the main treatment
  • Immunisation will help prevent whooping cough

What is it?

Whooping cough is also known as pertussis and is a highly contagious respiratory disease.

It is caused by a bacteria which leads of coughing fits. The infection is spread through the air from coughing and sneezing.

Children under two are most commonly affected.

Immunisation has made whopping cough a milder illness. Children who have not been vaccinated can become seriously ill.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms initially seem like a cold, but after about 10 days the infection leads to excessive coughing which is so bad that children may find it hard to eat, drink or breath.

There can be a whooping sound after the coughs, hence the name of the disease.

Some coughing fits can cause vomiting and a child may briefly lose consciousness at the end of a spell.

The illness usually strikes about one week after infection. Whooping cough lasts about six weeks, and recovery normally begins about four weeks after the illness starts.

The condition can lead to pneumonia, seizures and brain damage. It can also be fatal.

What can be done to help?

Treatment involves bed rest and nursing care.

Some children with a severe illness will need hospital treatment.

How can it be prevented?

The pertussis vaccine can prevent the disease. The immunisation is given in conjunction with the diphtheria, and tetanus injection, known as the DTP vaccine.

There are small risks associated with the vaccine. In extremely rare cases it can cause a severe allergic reaction (see section on vaccination).

Common reactions include sore arm or leg, fever, crying, loss of appetite and vomiting.

Paracetamol can help relieve the symptoms from the vaccine.

The vaccine can wear off during adolescence which is why some teenagers and adults can be infected despite immunisation as children.

Future trends

Increasing immunisation rates is the key to reducing whooping cough rates.

Getting help

Your doctor or practice nurse will be able to help.

See also:

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