Whooping Cough (Pertussis) | Infectious Diseases

Infectious Diseases

Whooping Cough (Pertussis)

Whooping cough is a highly contagious illness that is especially dangerous for infants and young children. The pertussis vaccine helps to prevent disease. Our infectious disease experts provide fast treatments if you or your child get sick.

Medically reviewed by Natasha Nakra, M.D. on Aug. 25, 2023.

Father holding his crying baby while sitting on the edge of the bed.

Specialized Care for You and Your Family

The pertussis vaccine can protect you and your family, but vaccines aren’t perfect.

If you or your child gets whooping cough, we can help. At UC Davis Health, your family benefits from a team of pediatric infectious disease specialists and internal medicine doctors who specialize in adult infectious diseases. We provide advanced care for whooping cough to aid recovery and prevent complications.


What Is Whooping Cough (Pertussis)?

Whooping cough is a contagious bacterial infection that causes severe coughing fits. It’s sometimes called the 100-day cough because the coughing fits can last for months. The illness is especially dangerous for infants and young children, who often need hospitalized care. Teens and adults can get whooping cough, too.

The medical term for whooping cough – pertussis – means violent cough. The more common term – whooping cough – refers to the “whoop” sound you make when you inhale to catch your breath during a coughing fit.

The pertussis vaccine can protect you and your family. Children 6 and younger need five doses of the diphtheria-pertussis-tetanus (DTaP) vaccine. People 7 and older who didn’t get the DTaP vaccine may need one or more doses of the tetanus-diphtheria-pertussis (Tdap) vaccine.


Whooping Cough Symptoms

Early signs of whooping cough typically appear 5 to 10 days after exposure, but they may develop as late as three weeks later. These stage 1 symptoms mimic a cold and last for about two weeks.

The coughing fits, whooping sound and other stage 2 (late) symptoms happen next. These symptoms may last from 1 to 10 weeks. Symptoms are worse in the beginning and gradually improve over time.

Teens and adults, as well as vaccinated people of all ages, tend to have milder symptoms.

Common Early (Stage 1) Symptoms

Signs of early (stage 1) whooping cough include:

  • Low-grade fever of 100.4°F or lower
  • Mild cough (in anyone except infants, who may not cough)
  • Pauses in breathing (apnea) in infants and young children that cause their skin to turn blue or purple (cyanosis)

Common Late (Stage 2) Symptoms

Late (stage 2) whooping cough symptoms include:

  • Rapid, violent, uncontrolled coughing fits (paroxysms)
  • High-pitched “whoop” sound at the end of a coughing fit
  • Vomiting during or after a coughing fit
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Extreme fatigue after a coughing fit

Causes and Risk Factors for Whooping Cough

A bacteria called Bordetella pertussis causes whooping cough. The infection spreads from person to person in respiratory droplets and saliva. You can get whooping cough if an infected person coughs or sneezes and you breathe in the bacteria. You can also get it if an infected person kisses you.

People who don’t get the pertussis vaccine, or who haven’t received all their vaccine doses, are most at risk. Other factors that increase risk include:


Children 6 and younger who haven’t received all five vaccinations are more at risk. The risk is highest for newborns, who don’t get the first vaccine dose until they’re 2 months old.

Breathing (Respiratory) Issues

A history of breathing disorders, such as pneumonia or asthma, increases your risk.


Women in their last trimester (third trimester) of pregnancy are more prone to whooping cough.


Diagnosing Whooping Cough

Our providers may diagnose whooping cough based on your symptoms and known exposures to people who have the illness.

You may also undergo tests to check for the bacteria, including:

  • Mucus test: Your provider uses a cotton swab or syringe with saline to collect a mucus sample from the back of your throat. A lab tests the sample for the presence of the bacteria.
  • Blood tests: Blood tests can help with diagnosis.

Whooping Cough Treatments at UC Davis Health

At UC Davis Health, our infectious disease specialists start immediate treatments to minimize your risk of serious breathing problems. We can also recommend home treatments to ease the cough and help you breathe better.


Antibiotics kill the bacteria that cause whooping cough. They also shorten the time that you are contagious. Taking antibiotics when early symptoms appear makes the coughing fits in the second stage less severe. Infants and those with severe breathing problems may need IV antibiotics in the hospital.

Cough Relief

Antibiotics don’t stop or treat coughs. Cough medications also don’t work on whooping cough. You may need to suction mucus from your infant or young child’s nose. You should also drink liquids to prevent dehydration and use a cool mist humidifier to loosen mucus.


Preventing Whooping Cough

The pertussis vaccine is the best way to protect your family from getting whooping cough. How many doses you need, and when to get them, depends on your age and other factors.

DTaP Vaccine

Children 6 and younger need five doses of the DTaP vaccine starting at two months and ending at age 6.

Tdap Vaccine for Children

Children 7 to 10 years who didn’t receive the DTaP vaccine should get one dose of Tdap.

Tdap Vaccine for Adults

Adults need a Tdap booster vaccine every 10 years.

Tdap Vaccine During Pregnancy

Pregnant people should get a single Tdap vaccine at the start of the third trimester. This vaccine provides some protection for the baby after they’re born.

Preventive Antibiotics

If you’re exposed to the pertussis bacteria, antibiotics can lower your risk of getting sick. Our doctors may prescribe these drugs for those at high risk of complications, such as infants, pregnant people and those with known breathing problems.

Proper Hygiene

The same steps you take to prevent colds can also lower your risk of pertussis. Wash your hands, use hand sanitizer and cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze.

Who does it affect?

24MPeople worldwide get whooping cough every year

Who’s most at risk?

3 in 4Cases occur in children younger than 5 years old

Annual worldwide deaths

160KPeople die from whooping cough every year

Source: National Library of Medicine: Pertussis

Request an Appointment

As Sacramento's No. 1 hospital, you'll benefit from unique advantages in primary care and specialty care. This includes prevention, diagnosis and treatment options from experts in 150 specialties.

Referring Physicians

To refer a patient, you can submit an electronic referral form or call.



For questions and appointment information

Awards and Recognitions
USNWR Best Hospital badge

Ranked among the nation’s best hospitals

A U.S. News & World Report best hospital in cancer, cardiology, heart & vascular surgery, diabetes & endocrinology, ENT, geriatrics, neurology & neurosurgery, obstetrics & gynecology, and pulmonology & lung surgery.

Learn more
US News & World Report best Children’s Hospital badge

Ranked among the nation’s best children’s hospitals

A U.S. News & World Report best children’s hospital in diabetes & endocrinology, nephrology, and orthopedics*. (*Together with Shriners Children’s)

Learn more
USNWR best regional hospital badge

Ranked Sacramento’s #1 hospital

Ranked Sacramento’s #1 hospital by U.S. News, and high-performing in COPD, colon cancer surgery, diabetes, heart attack, heart failure, hip fracture, hip replacement, kidney failure, leukemia, lymphoma & myeloma, lung cancer surgery, ovarian cancer surgery, pneumonia, prostate cancer surgery, stroke, TAVR, uterine cancer surgery, gastroenterology & GI surgery, and orthopedics.

Learn more
Magnet designation badge

The nation’s highest nursing honor

UC Davis Medical Center has received Magnet® recognition, the nation’s highest honor for nursing excellence.

Learn more
Chime acute badge

“Most Wired” for acute care

UC Davis Health has been recognized as a level 10 out of 10 in the Digital Health “Most Wired” program from the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives (CHIME). The honor recognizes excellence in using technology to improve the delivery of care.

Learn more
Chime ambulatory badge

“Most Wired” for ambulatory care

UC Davis Health has been recognized as a level 10 out of 10 in the Digital Health “Most Wired” program from the College of Healthcare Information Management Executives (CHIME). The honor recognizes excellence in using technology to improve the delivery of care.

Learn more
NCI badge

World-class cancer care

One of ~56 U.S. cancer centers designated “comprehensive” by the National Cancer Institute.

Learn more

A leader in health care equality

For the 13th consecutive year, UC Davis Medical Center has been recognized as an LGBTQ+ Healthcare Equality Leader by the educational arm of America’s largest civil rights organization.

Learn more
See more