Whooping cough


Whooping cough is an infectious disease that causes severe and long-lasting cough. For most people, whooping cough goes away by itself. Children younger than six months can become seriously ill. They are treated with antibiotics if they have or are suspected of having whooping cough.

A vaccine against whooping cough is included in the vaccination program for children. But protection against the disease diminishes over time. This also applies if you have had whooping cough. There are almost always adults who do not know that they have whooping cough that infects young children. Be aware if you have symptoms that may indicate whooping cough and socialize with children younger than one year. It is especially important if the child is younger than six months.  

Symptoms of whooping cough

Typical whooping cough begins as a common cold. The child may get coughing, a little coughing and sometimes a little fever.   

The cough then becomes stronger and after one to two weeks it becomes a cough attack.

During the cough attacks, the child may cough until they become red-blue in the face and lose their breath. When the child finally draws in air, there is a beeping or wheezing sound called peeking. It is common for the child to vomit mucus afterward. The cough attacks often make the child exhausted.  

Host attacks do not need to come very often, sometimes only three or four attacks per day, but they can also come up to fifty times a day. The most common thing is that they come at night when the child is lying down. Between the cough attacks, the child can feel good, hardly seem ill at all and often be without fever.

The cough attacks are hard, but for most children, it is not dangerous. Read more under the next heading about which children it can be serious for.

Sometimes the cough attacks can cause the child to have very red eyes. It is not dangerous and it goes away by itself after five to six days.

The period of cough attacks usually lasts for three to eight weeks. 

Whooping cough can be serious for younger children

Children younger than six months do not have full protection of the vaccine. For them, whooping cough can be serious and sometimes life-threatening. Extra vulnerable are children younger than three months who have not yet received their first dose of vaccine.

Cough attacks can lead to respiratory arrest and oxygen deficiency. Sometimes the breathing stops even before the cough or twitching has begun. Other serious symptoms of whooping cough are cramps and unconsciousness.

Whooping cough can lead to complications such as pneumonia. This is a common reason why children younger than six months with whooping cough need hospital care.

Even premature infants and children with certain chronic illnesses can suffer from such problems that they need to be monitored in hospitals if they receive whooping cough.

Symptoms in adults and vaccinated children and adults

Adults who are not vaccinated and who have whooping cough can have the same symptoms as children. But as an adult, you usually get more mild symptoms, such as coughing for several weeks.

Older children and adults can get whooping cough even though they have been vaccinated before or have had whooping cough. Even then, the symptoms of whooping cough are often alleviated. It can therefore be difficult to distinguish whooping cough from an ordinary long-term cough.

Whooping cough is contagious even when the symptoms are milder and less clear.

Can take ten to twelve weeks to recover

The most intense cough attacks usually last two to four weeks. Over time, the host attacks usually slow down.

Whooping cough goes away by itself, although it can often take time to get completely healthy. The disease can last up to ten to twelve weeks. 

When and where should I seek care?

Contact a health care provider if you have any of the following:

  • You suspect that you as an adult or your child have whooping cough.
  • You as an adult or your child have had a cough for more than 3-4 weeks.

Wait until it becomes every day if it’s a weekend.

Contact a health care center or emergency room if any of the following is true:

  • Your child is younger than one year and has been exposed to whooping cough, for example, met someone who has whooping cough.
  • You as an adult have had a cough for two weeks or more and spend time with children younger than one year.
  • You are pregnant after week 27 and have had a cough for two weeks or more.
  • You as an adult or your child have whooping cough and the symptoms change, for example, you or the child get more fever or pain in a new place. This may mean that you or the child has a sequela. 

You do not need to seek care elsewhere if it is closed. Wait until the on-call reception or medical center open.

If it’s in a hurry

Immediately seek medical attention at an emergency room if your child is less than six months old and has coughing with pus. The same is true of children with certain chronic diseases who have to cough with pimples. These are, for example, children with asthma and children with impaired immune systems.

So whooping cough infects

Whooping cough infects when the sick person coughs or sneezes. The infection is in small drops that you can get. Whooping cough is primarily contaminated indoors. To become infected, it requires a quite close contact with a sick person for more than an hour. You may also become infected if you touch surfaces where drops have fallen and then rub you in the eyes or nose.

Infectiousness is greatest during the first one to two weeks, from the onset of symptoms. Then the contagion decreases. It can take up to six weeks from the first symptoms to noticeably free of infection.

From the time you become infected, it usually takes one to two weeks before you get sick.

Who is infected?

Unvaccinated people and children younger than six months are most easily infected by whooping cough.

Often adults infecting children 

Every few years, small outbreaks of whooping cough occur, even though most children are vaccinated. At each outbreak, children become ill and need hospital care. Usually, the children are younger than six months. They have almost always been infected by adults who are sick without any obvious symptoms.  

The vaccine protects only for a period of time

The vaccine against whooping cough protects for five to ten years. Protection gradually decreases. You are protected for about 15 years if you have had whooping cough. Adult or older children can, therefore, receive whooping cough later in life, despite having previously received a vaccine or who have had whooping cough. Whooping cough is contagious even then, but the symptoms are often milder. 

The vaccine causes many fewer children to become ill

In Europe, children were vaccinated against whooping cough in the 1950s, as part of the so-called triple vaccine. The pertussis vaccine was removed in 1979 because the vaccine did not have such a good effect and because of suspected side effects. During the 1980s and 1990s, more and more children received whooping cough. In 1996, children began to be vaccinated against whooping cough again, with a new type of vaccine. Subsequently, the number of people who become ill in whooping cough has decreased sharply. 

So you can prevent whooping cough

Today, all children are offered a vaccine against whooping cough through the vaccination program for children. Vaccinations occur on five occasions: at three, five and twelve months of age, when the child is five to six years and at the age of 14-16. 

In order to reduce the risk of whooping cough, it is important that the child follows the vaccination program.

Protect young children

It is important to try to protect children who have not been vaccinated or have only had one to two vaccinations from being infected with whooping cough. Pay attention to symptoms that may indicate whooping cough in people who spend time with a child younger than one year.


It is often easy for the doctor to diagnose whooping cough if the child has the typical pimples. It is more difficult before the peeps have started, as the symptoms are often similar to other respiratory infections. Since the child can act well between the cough attacks, it can also be difficult to diagnose if the child does not have a cough attack at the time of the examination.

It is also more difficult for the doctor to diagnose you without an adult test, as the symptoms are often less clear.

To rule out other causes of the cough, the doctor listens to you or your child’s lungs and examines the throat.

A test shows if it is whooping cough

The doctor may take a test to check for whooping cough. It is done in the nose using a thin suction catheter or with a cotton cloth stick. It goes fast and can feel a little uncomfortable, but does not hurt. The answer to the test usually comes after a few days.

Treatment of whooping cough

Children younger than six months often need hospital care if they get whooping cough. The same applies to unvaccinated children younger than one year and children with certain chronic diseases. At the hospital, breathing is monitored and the child can get help with breathing if needed.

Treatment with antibiotics

There is no medicine that makes you cure whooping cough. But the disease can be alleviated if the sick person gets antibiotics early. It can also reduce the risk of infecting someone else.

Children who are younger than one year and who have been exposed to infection are treated differently depending on the child’s age:

  • Children younger than six months are treated with antibiotics, regardless of whether they have pertussis symptoms or have only been infected.
  • Children between six and twelve months are treated with antibiotics when they have the first cold symptoms. It can make the disease easier. If treatment is delayed more than a week after the outbreak of the disease, the treatment may not help.

Antibiotics are also given to the following people:

  • Children with certain chronic diseases who have whooping cough and have had symptoms.
  • Adults and children are older than one year with whooping cough and who cannot avoid meeting children younger than one year.

Cough medicine usually does not relieve the hassle.

Whooping cough and pregnancy

You can infect the newborn baby after birth if you are pregnant when you get whooping cough. Therefore, pay attention to whether you have been coughing for a long time. It can be whooping cough without you thinking about it.  

You may need antibiotic treatment if you get whooping cough after week 27 of pregnancy. Even those who socialize near the child may need antibiotics. In this way, the newborn baby can be protected from being infected. It is a doctor who decides if you and your loved ones need treatment.

Vaccine for pregnant women    

In some countries, vaccination is recommended for pregnant women during the second part of pregnancy. In this way, the child is also vaccinated, as antibodies are transferred to the child through the blood of the umbilical cord. In some part of Europe, there is currently no recommendation to offer vaccines to pregnant women. 

What can I do for myself?

There are several things you can do to make it feel easier for the child. You can try the same things if you are an adult and have a whooping cough.

  • Let the child sleep with his head taller than usual. It can make breathing easier. Try putting some extra pillows under the mattress at the head end of the bed. 
  • Make sure the child drinks a little extra. Drinking can make the mucus easier to cough up.
  • It is good to be out if the sick person is able to.
  • Some feel better if it is cool in the bedroom.
  • It may be good to have a bucket by the bed. Often, a sick child can have multiple cough attacks every night. There can be a lot of mucus and sometimes the baby vomits.
  • It is common for children to lose appetite when they have whooping cough. The important thing is that the child eats. Let the child eat what they crave.

At home from preschool or school

Most children need to be home from pre-school or school during the most intense period of illness. The child can go to preschool or school again as they cope and are fever-free, even if the cough remains.

When the first typical signs of whooping cough are noticed in the child, the most contagious period has often already been. Therefore, it does not help from the point of view that the child stays at home. The risk of infecting others also decreases when the cough is not as strong, although the child may still be contagious.

Children with whooping cough should have been treated with antibiotics for at least five days before going to preschool again if there are children younger than one year of preschool.

Inform about whooping cough

You who are guardians should tell the staff at the preschool or school that the child has whooping cough. They should, in turn, inform about whooping cough and those other children may have been infected. In this way, parents with children younger than one year may be aware of the disease. The children can then receive treatment early if needed.


In connection with whooping cough, children may develop pneumonia or ear inflammation. Then the child may get a fever or otherwise ill. For example, the child may become tired, hungry, whiny, have pain somewhere or have reduced appetite. Then you should contact the health center again.

It is more uncommon for you as an adult to have any sequelae.  

What is whooping cough?

Whooping cough is caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis. The bacterium causes the mucous membranes in the airways to become inflamed and swell. The cough is a reaction to the swelling and the body’s attempt to get rid of the damaged tissue.

Doctors report the disease to the authorities

Whooping cough is a notifiable disease. This means that the doctor who makes the diagnosis must report it to the infection control doctor in the county and to the Public Health Agency.

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