Pertussis In Children

What do I need to know about pertussis in children?

Pertussis is an infection of the nose, throat, and lungs. It is also called whooping cough. When your child has pertussis, his air passages narrow and get plugged with thick mucus. This may cause him to have coughing spells. Anyone can have pertussis, but it is most serious in babies and young children. A baby may get pertussis before he is old enough to get the shots to prevent the infection. Pertussis is caused by a germ called bacteria. It is easily spread in the air when someone with pertussis coughs or sneezes.

What are the signs and symptoms of pertussis in children?

It may take 3 to 21 days for your child to get pertussis after contact with the bacteria. This time is called the incubation period. Pertussis begins like a cold. After a coughing spell, it may seem like your child cannot get his next breath. When the coughing ends and your child takes a breath, he may make a whooping noise. When coughing, his face or fingertips may turn red, blue, or white because he is not getting enough oxygen. This may last 2 weeks or longer. After 2 to 4 more weeks, your child will begin to feel better. The cough may last 1 to 3 months. Your child may also have the following signs and symptoms:

  • Sneezing and a stuffy nose

  • Red or watery eyes

  • A cough that may worsen after 7 to 14 days

  • Fever

  • Tiredness

  • No interest in eating or drinking

  • Vomiting because of the coughing

  • Drooling

How is pertussis in children diagnosed?

Your child's caregiver will do a physical exam and listen to his lungs. He will ask how long he has been sick. Tell your caregiver if your child has other medical conditions. Tell your caregiver if your child has been around anyone with pertussis. He may order the following tests:

  • Blood tests: These tests will help your child's caregiver find out if he has an infection.

  • Nasal swab: This is a test that may help caregivers learn which type of germ is causing your child's illness. It is done by placing a cotton swab into your child's nose to collect a sample of nasal mucus.

  • Chest x-ray: This shows a picture of your child's lungs. Your child's caregiver will use the x-ray to look for signs of infection like pneumonia.

How is pertussis in children treated?

Babies and young children are more likely to have serious breathing problems with pertussis. They may need to go into the hospital for tests and treatment. If your child is treated at home, he may need the following:

  • Care:

    • Give him lots of liquids: Encourage your child to drink small amounts of liquids every hour when he is awake. Good liquids for most children to drink are water, some fruit juices, and decaffeinated sports drinks. This will help prevent him from becoming dehydrated. Dehydration is caused by not drinking enough liquid, or by losing too much fluid through diarrhea, vomiting, or high fevers.

    • Feed him small, healthy meals often: Offer your child a variety of healthy foods, including fruits, vegetables, breads, dairy products, meat, and fish. Eating healthy foods may help your child feel better and have more energy. It may also help him get better faster. If your child is not hungry or tires easily, try feeding him smaller amounts more often.

    • Use a humidifier: Run a cool mist humidifier to increase air moisture in your child's bedroom. Follow the humidifier instructions to run it and clean it properly. Keep the humidifier out of your child's reach. The humidifier will help loosen the mucus in your child's throat and make it easier for him to breathe. It may also soothe your child's cough.

    • Help him breathe: Use a bulb syringe to gently clean your baby's nose. Wash the bulb syringe after each use. Clean out your baby's nose before breast or bottle feeding so he can breathe easier while feeding. You may need to feed your baby smaller amounts more often if he gets tired during feedings. Clean your baby's nose before you put him down to sleep.

    • Let him rest: Your child should rest as much as possible. Try to keep your child calm. His breathing and coughing may become worse if he cries.

  • Medicines:

    • Ibuprofen or acetaminophen: These medicines are given to decrease your child's pain and fever. They can be bought without a doctor's order. Ask how much medicine is safe to give your child, and how often to give it. Do not give your child aspirin. It may cause a serious disease called Reye syndrome. Read medicine labels to see if your child's medicine has aspirin. Aspirin may also be called salicylate or acetylsalicylate.

    • Antibiotic medicine: Antibiotic medicine may be used to treat pertussis after coughing begins.

How can I prevent pertussis?

  • DTaP vaccine: This vaccine is given to help prevent diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (whooping cough). Children usually get 5 doses of the vaccine. These should be given at ages 2, 4 and 6 months, between 15 and 18 months, and between 4 and 6 years.

  • Tdap vaccine: This vaccine is a booster shot used to help prevent diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (whooping cough) in older children and adults. This booster vaccine is given only once to adolescents (11 years of age or older) who have been vaccinated for it before. It is also given only once to adults who have been vaccinated for it before or who do not know if they have had it before. Pregnant women are given the booster at 27 to 36 weeks of pregnancy.

  • To learn more about vaccinations:
    • The National Immunization Program Public Inquiries
      1600 Clifton Road, Mailstop E-05
      Atlanta , GA 30333
      Phone: 1- 800 - 232-4636
      Web Address:

  • Prevent the spread of pertussis: If your child has signs or symptoms of pertussis, keep him away from others. If your child has had contact with someone who has pertussis, keep him away from others. Ask your child's caregiver if you or family members need to receive antibiotic medicine or a booster shot.

What are the risks of pertussis?

Pertussis is very easily spread to others. If your child has not had the DTaP shots, he may get pertussis. Pertussis may cause other serious health problems, most often in babies less than 1 year old. Your child could get pneumonia or an ear infection. Rarely, it may affect your child's brain. This could cause your child to have seizures, which may lead to brain damage. This can be life-threatening.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your child's care. Learn about your child's health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your child's caregivers to decide what care you want for your child. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© 2013 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.

Learn more about Pertussis In Children