Childhood Respiratory Diseases Whooping Cough

When a child’s cough becomes severe, he may be suffering from pertussis, or whooping cough. Pertussis is a respiratory infection that is the leading cause of vaccine-preventable deaths.

Whooping cough is exceptionally contagious. Your child can contract pertussis from the cough or sneeze of an infected person or from touching a surface touched by an infected person. After exposure, the incubation period is about seven to 10 days, although sometimes it can take up to 21 days for symptoms of this respiratory condition to become present.

While children of any age are susceptible to whooping cough, those younger than six months (who haven’t been immunized yet) and those between 11 to 18 years old (who suffer from a decreased immunity) are most likely to contract pertussis.

Pertussis Statistics

In 2004, doctors treated nearly 26,000 cases of pertussis. Only 13 of these cases proved fatal.

Symptoms of Whooping Cough

At the onset, the symptoms of whooping cough resemble those of the common cold and include:

  • coughing
  • runny nose
  • slight fever
  • sneezing.

After the first week, a child with pertussis develops coughing spells that can last for up to one minute. These spells have a characteristic “whooping” sound, and your child may turn red or purple when he experiences them. Sometimes, vomiting will follow the coughing spells. In between the whooping spells, children usually look and feel normal.

Infants make up 50 percent of the mortality from whooping cough. Some infants don’t develop the characteristic “whooping” noise when they cough. They might appear to be gasping for air and have a red face, and they may even stop breathing for a few seconds.

Unfortunately, whooping cough symptoms can last a long time. After the initial one to two weeks of cold symptoms, an additional two to eight weeks of severe coughing spells follow. After several weeks, recovery begins. However, in some cases, it may take up to several months before the child feels normal again.

Pertussis Treatment

If your child develops any of the above symptoms of pertussis, see a doctor for proper treatment. For older children with whooping cough, doctors will likely prescribe two weeks of antibiotics and recommend that the child drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration.

Infants and young children are likely to be hospitalized because of their high risk for complications, including:

  • dehydration
  • ear infection
  • encephalitis
  • pneumonia
  • seizures.

The Timeline for Pertussis

Pertussis often lasts for several weeks, if not longer. After the incubation period, the child displays common cold symptoms for about two weeks. Then, the coughing spells will appear for the next two weeks. After that, the child continues to cough over the next several weeks (and possibly even months), but the coughing becomes less severe and occurs with less frequently.

Note that the duration of each stage of pertussis is an approximation. The stages of whooping cough will vary with each child, depending on the patient’s overall health and the severity of his case.

Thankfully, whooping cough can be prevented. The pertussis vaccine is combined with diphtheria, tetanus and acellular pertussis as the DTaP shot. A child is normally given five doses before he reaches six years of age.


Jenkinson, Doug (updated January 11, 2005). Whooping Cough. Retrieved September 18, 2006 from:

KidsHealth (n.d.). Whooping Cough (pertussis). Retrieved September 18, 2007 from the KidsHealth Web site: