Whooping Cough (Pertussis) (Adult)

Whooping cough (pertussis) is a bacterial infection in the respiratory tract. It can be a very serious infection in infants and older adults. In healthy older children and adults, it is generally mild.

Pertussis is highly contagious. The infection is spread through the air by coughing or sneezing. The illness starts like an ordinary cold with mild cough, congestion, and low fever. Symptoms then develop, which may include:

  • Coughing spells that cause a whooping sound when breathing in

  • Gagging or vomiting after coughing

  • Poor appetite

  • Feeling very tired

  • Thick mucus in the nose and throat

Early treatment is very important. It helps lessen the severity of the disease. It also decreases the likelihood of passing the illness on to other people. Antibiotics are used to treat this illness. Even with treatment, it may take up to 3 months for the cough to go away completely.

Vaccination prevents pertussis in children. The vaccine effect lessens after 5 to 10 years. So a booster vaccine is often needed. Teens and adults who were vaccinated as children and have not had a booster can be infected and may spread the infection to unvaccinated babies and children. Be sure to ask your healthcare provider whether anyone in your household needs a booster vaccine.

Home care

  • Take all medicine as prescribed by the healthcare provider. Be sure to take antibiotics as directed until they are gone, even if you feel better. If you don't finish the antibiotics, the infection may come back and be harder to treat.

  • Rest and get plenty of sleep.

  • Stay home from work or school until you have completed at least 5 days of antibiotic treatment. If antibiotics are not used, stay home until 21 days after you first had symptoms of a cough. When resuming activity, go back to your normal routine gradually.

  • Stay away from cigarette smoke.

  • Ask your healthcare provider before taking over-the-counter medicine for fever, pain, and coughing.

  • To prevent loss of fluids (dehydration), try drinking 6 to 8 glasses of fluids (water, juice, tea, soup) a day. Fluids will help loosen secretions in the nose and lungs.

  • Cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze or cough, using your sleeve or elbow. Use a tissue if you have one. Don't use your hands. Dispose of any tissues correctly.

  • Scrub your hands for 20 seconds with soap and clean, running water after you cough or sneeze, and frequently throughout the day. An alcohol-based rub may be used if soap and water aren't available.

Follow-up care

Follow up with your healthcare provider as advised.

When to seek medical advice

Call your healthcare provider right away for any of the following:

  • Trouble breathing or painful breathing

  • Cough with repeated gagging or vomiting

  • Coughing up colored or bloody mucus

  • Severe headache or face, neck, or ear pain

  • Fever over 100.4°F (38.0°C) for more than 3 days, or as advised by your healthcare provider

  • You don't start improving within 1 week

  • Symptoms get worse or you have new symptoms

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