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What is pertussis? Pertussis is an infection of the nose, throat, and lungs. It is also called whooping cough. When you have pertussis, your air passages get plugged with thick mucus, which causes coughing spells. Pertussis is usually less serious in adults and most serious in babies and young children.

What causes pertussis? Pertussis is caused by a germ called a bacteria. It is easily spread in the air when someone with pertussis coughs or sneezes.

What are the signs and symptoms of pertussis? It may take 3 to 21 days to get pertussis after you come in contact with the bacteria. This time is called the incubation period. Pertussis begins like a cold. After you cough and you take a breath, you may make a whooping noise. You may also cough up thick mucus after a coughing spell. You may cough for several weeks or months after you begin to feel better. You may also have the following signs and symptoms:

  • Red or watery eyes

  • Sneezing and a runny, stuffy nose

  • A cough that may worsen after 7 to 14 days

  • Fever or sweating

  • No interest in eating or drinking

  • Tiredness, often after a coughing spell

  • Vomiting because of the coughing

How is pertussis diagnosed? Your caregiver will do a physical exam and listen to your lungs. He will ask how long you have felt sick and what your symptoms are. He may ask if you have other health conditions. Tell your caregiver if you have been around anyone who has pertussis. He may order the following tests to find the cause of your symptoms:

  • Blood tests: These tests will help your caregiver find out if you have an infection.

  • Nasal swab: This is a test that may help caregivers learn which type of germ is causing your illness. It is done by placing a cotton swab into your nose to collect a sample of nasal mucus.

  • Chest x-ray: This shows a picture of your lungs. Your caregiver will use the x-ray to look for signs of infection like pneumonia.

How is pertussis treated?

  • Self care:

    • Drink lots of liquids: Drink small amounts of liquids every hour when awake. This will help prevent you from becoming dehydrated. Good liquids for most people to drink are water, some fruit juices, and decaffeinated sports drinks. Limit the amount of caffeine that you drink. Read the food and drink labels to learn if they contain caffeine.

    • Eat healthy foods: Eat a variety of healthy foods including fruits, vegetables, breads, dairy products, meat, and fish. Eating healthy foods may help you feel better and have more energy. It may also help you get better faster. If you are not hungry, eat smaller amounts more often.

    • Rest: Rest as much as possible until you begin to feel better.

    • Use a humidifier: Fill a cool mist humidifier with cool water and put it by your bed. The humidifier will help loosen the mucus in your throat. Ask your caregiver for more information about how to safely use a humidifier.

    • Avoid smoke: Do not smoke or be around anyone who smokes. Stay away from wood-burning stoves or fireplaces. Your breathing and coughing may get worse if you are near smoke.

  • Medicines:

    • Ibuprofen or acetaminophen: These medicines decrease pain and lower a fever. They are available without a doctor's order. Ask your caregiver which medicine is right for you. Ask how much to take and how often to take it. Follow directions. These medicines can cause stomach bleeding if not taken correctly. Ibuprofen can cause kidney damage. Do not take ibuprofen if you have kidney disease, an ulcer, or allergies to aspirin. Acetaminophen can cause liver damage. Do not drink alcohol if you take acetaminophen.

    • Antibiotic medicine: Antibiotic medicine may be given after your cough begins. It is given to help treat or prevent an infection caused by bacteria.

How can pertussis be prevented? If you have had contact with someone who has pertussis, stay away from others. If you have signs or symptoms of pertussis, stay away from others. Do not return to work until your caregiver says it is okay. Ask your caregiver if you or family members need to receive antibiotic medicine or a booster shot. The Tdap vaccine may prevent pertussis.

  • Tdap vaccine: This vaccine is a booster shot used to help prevent diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (whooping cough) in older children and adults. This booster vaccine is given only once to adolescents (11 years of age or older) who have been vaccinated for it before. It is also given only once to adults who have been vaccinated for it before or who do not know if they have had it before.

  • To learn more about vaccinations:
    • The National Immunization Program Public Inquiries
      1600 Clifton Road, Mailstop E-05
      Atlanta , GA 30333
      Phone: 1- 800 - 232-4636
      Web Address:

What are the risks of pertussis? Pertussis is very easily spread to others. It can also cause other serious health problems, such as pneumonia.

When should I contact my caregiver? Contact your caregiver if:

  • You have a fever.

  • You are not drinking liquids.

  • Your cough is getting worse.

  • You are vomiting and cannot keep anything down.

  • You are not sleeping or resting because of the cough.

  • You have the following signs and symptoms of dehydration:

    • Dizziness

    • Dry or cracked lips, dry mouth or tongue, sleepiness, and wrinkled skin

    • Urinating less

  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

When should I seek immediate care? Seek care immediately or call 911 if:

  • You have trouble breathing.


You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment.

© 2013 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of the Blausen Databases or Truven Health Analytics.

The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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