Whooping cough – symptoms, treatment and prevention


07. 03. 2024

Whooping cough (pertussis) is a highly infectious respiratory disease caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis or, more specifically, the toxins that this bacterium produces and which attack the mucous membranes of the respiratory tract. MUDr. Barbara Taušová, chief paediatrician and medical director at Canadian Medical, explains how to distinguish it from an ordinary cough, who as at risk and how we can protect ourselves.

How can we distinguish whooping cough from an ordinary cough that accompanies a cold or bronchitis?

The clinical criteria are a cough that persists for a at least two weeks, doesn’t respond to antitussives (cough-suppressant medications) and has at least one of the following symptoms: coughing fits, sometimes associated with vomiting, and laboured breathing with gasping.

Who comprises the risk group for whooping cough?

Newborns and unvaccinated or only partially vaccinated infants have the largest number of severe, complicated cases of whooping cough.

Is it an infectious disease? If so, how long does it take for symptoms to appear?

Yes, the infection is spread through droplets. The incubation period is approximately 7-10 day, though maximally 21 days.

How long is a person with whooping cough contagious?

One to three weeks after the onset of symptoms.

What if we don't recognise that it is whooping cough and confuse it with an ordinary cough?

It depends on the course of the illness. When the clinical criteria are met, every patient should be tested to confirm or rule out whooping cough.

Whooping cough typically goes through several stages:

  • catarrhal – runny nose, low-grade fever, mild cough;
  • paroxysmal – coughing fits, with the typical gasping at the end of a fit;
  • cyanosis and vomiting;
  • convalescence – gradual improvement of the cough, though this can take an additional 2-3 weeks.

Is whooping cough a dangerous illness?

It is dangerous mainly for the risk group of newborns and infants, where it can present at the beginning with apnoea and coughing fits with associated cyanosis and vomiting. Bacterial pneumonia is a dreaded complication in up to 25% of children under the age of six months.

What is the treatment and how long does it take?

If the disease is diagnosed at an early stage, it is treated with antibiotics for three weeks following the onset of symptoms in the case of adults, six weeks in the case of small children.

How is whooping cough prevented?

Vaccination of children in early childhood is an effective means of prevention. Pregnant women can also be vaccinated to ensure the protection of newborns. Other measures consist in excluding infected persons from the group (for at least 48 hours after the start of treatment with antibiotics, or 21 days from the onset of symptoms in the case of untreated people) and antibiotic prophylaxis in the case of coming into contact with someone who is infected.

We have such vaccination from childhood. Is it now part of the mandatory vaccination schedule or do we have to arrange it ourselves?

Vaccination is mandatory in children up to ten years of age.

How does vaccination protect us? Can we get infected even though we are vaccinated?

Regularly vaccinated children are protected by vaccination, but as is the case with every type of vaccination, protection is not 100%, but it can at least ensure a milder course of the disease. In the case of adults, vaccination is recommended for seniors.

A few numbers:

  • occurrence of whooping cough in the Czech Republic as at 1 February 2024: 378 reported cases
  • streptococcal infections: 672 reported cases                         
  • chickenpox: 4,200 reported cases                         


 MUDr. Barbara Taušová, Medical Director and Chief physician of paediatrics at Canadian Medical

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