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Medically reviewed by Last updated on Mar 5, 2023.

What is pertussis?

Pertussis, or whooping cough, is an infection of the nose, throat, and lungs. Your air passages get plugged with thick mucus, which causes coughing spells. Pertussis is usually less serious in adults and most serious in babies and young children. Pertussis is caused by bacteria. It is easily spread in the air when someone with pertussis coughs or sneezes.

What are the signs and symptoms of pertussis?

It may take 3 to 21 days to get pertussis after you come in contact with the bacteria. This time is called the incubation period. Pertussis begins like a cold. After you cough and you take a breath, you may make a whooping noise. You may also cough up thick mucus after a coughing spell. You may cough for several weeks or months after you begin to feel better. You may also have the following signs and symptoms:

  • Red or watery eyes
  • Sneezing and a runny, stuffy nose
  • A cough that may worsen after 7 to 14 days
  • Fever or sweating
  • No interest in eating or drinking
  • Fatigue, often after a coughing spell
  • Vomiting because of the coughing

How is pertussis diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will do a physical exam and listen to your lungs. He or she will ask about your symptoms and how long you have felt sick. He or she may ask if you have other health conditions. Tell your healthcare provider if you have been around anyone who has pertussis. He or she may order the following tests to find the cause of your symptoms:

  • Blood tests will help your healthcare provider find out if you have an infection.
  • A nasal swab is a test that may help your healthcare provider learn which type of germ is causing your illness. It is done by placing a cotton swab into your nose to collect a sample of nasal mucus.
  • A chest x-ray may be done to look for signs of infection, such as pneumonia.

How is pertussis treated?

  • NSAIDs , such as ibuprofen, help decrease swelling, pain, and fever. This medicine is available with or without a doctor's order. NSAIDs can cause stomach bleeding or kidney problems in certain people. If you take blood thinner medicine, always ask your healthcare provider if NSAIDs are safe for you. Always read the medicine label and follow directions.
  • Acetaminophen decreases pain and fever. It is available without a doctor's order. Ask how much to take and how often to take it. Follow directions. Read the labels of all other medicines you are using to see if they also contain acetaminophen, or ask your doctor or pharmacist. Acetaminophen can cause liver damage if not taken correctly.
  • Antibiotics help treat or prevent a bacterial infection.

Treatment options

The following list of medications are in some way related to or used in the treatment of this condition.

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How can I manage my symptoms?

  • Drink liquids as directed. Ask how much liquid to drink each day and which liquids are best for you. You may need to drink small amounts of liquid every hour when awake. This will help prevent dehydration. Good liquids to drink are water, fruit juices, or sports drinks. Limit caffeine.
  • Eat a variety of healthy foods. Healthy foods include fruits, vegetables, whole-grain breads, low-fat dairy products, beans, lean meats, and fish. If you are not hungry, eat smaller amounts more often. Healthy foods may give you energy and help you feel better.
  • Rest as much as possible until you begin to feel better.
  • Use a cool mist humidifier to increase air moisture in your home. This may make it easier for you to breathe and help decrease your cough.
  • Do not smoke or be around anyone who is smoking. Your breathing and coughing may get worse if you are near smoke. Ask your healthcare provider for information if you currently smoke and need help quitting.

What can I do to prevent the spread of pertussis?

  • Wash your hands often. Wash your hands several times each day. Wash after you use the bathroom, change a child's diaper, and before you prepare or eat food. Use soap and water every time. Rub your soapy hands together, lacing your fingers. Wash the front and back of your hands, and in between your fingers. Use the fingers of one hand to scrub under the fingernails of the other hand. Wash for at least 20 seconds. Rinse with warm, running water for several seconds. Then dry your hands with a clean towel or paper towel. Use hand sanitizer that contains alcohol if soap and water are not available. Do not touch your eyes, nose, or mouth without washing your hands first.
  • Cover a cough. Use a tissue that covers your mouth and nose. Throw the tissue away in a trash can right away. Use the bend of your arm if a tissue is not available. Then wash your hands well with soap and water or use a hand sanitizer.
  • Protect others from pertussis. Do not return to work until your healthcare provider says it is okay. It is important not to have close contact with young children or babies until the infection is gone. Pertussis can be life-threatening to young children and babies.
  • Talk to your healthcare provider about vaccines. A pertussis infection will not make you immune from another infection. The DTaP and Tdap vaccines help protect against pertussis. Your provider can recommend the vaccines that are right for you based on your age and health. Pregnant women should get 1 dose of Tdap with each pregnancy, during weeks 27 to 36. Tdap helps you build antibodies against pertussis bacteria. You will also pass the antibodies to your unborn baby. This helps protect your baby from infection until his or her immune system is developed.

Call your local emergency number (911 in the US) if:

  • You have trouble breathing.

Call your doctor if:

  • You have a fever.
  • Your cough is getting worse.
  • You are vomiting and cannot keep anything down.
  • You are not sleeping or resting because of the cough.
  • You have a headache, dizziness, or confusion.
  • You have dry mouth or increased thirst.
  • You are urinating little or not at all.
  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your healthcare providers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. 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.

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