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 that 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

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 infants and children. Be sure to ask your healthcare provider whether anyone in your household needs a booster vaccination.

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.

  • Avoid exposure to cigarette smoke.

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

  • To avoid 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. Dispose of any tissues properly.

  • Wash your hands well with soap and water after you cough or sneeze, and frequently throughout the day.

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

  • You don't start improving within 1 week

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