Whooping cough: symptoms and treatment in adults and in babies

Would you recognise the sound of whooping cough? You can hear what it sounds like, here...

whooping cough

Whooping cough is a bacterial infection which affects the lungs and airways. It can be particularly serious in young babies, so it's crucial to know how to spot the signs.

Would YOU know what whooping cough sounds like and the symptoms are? This new video released by Mayo Clinic shows a baby girl making the distinctive 'whooping' cough sound between coughs. Have a listen and familiarise yourself with the noise to watch out for.

What is whooping cough?

Whooping cough is a bacterial infection that affects the lungs and the tubes that supply the lungs with air. It is highly contagious and affects all ages.

Whooping cough is also known as Pertussis, because it is caused by an infection called Bordetella Pertussis. Due to the length of the illness it is sometimes referred to as the 'hundred day cough' as it can go on for two to three months. It's spread through the air by coughing and sneezing.

It occurs in waves and usually there tend to be peaks, occurring on average every three to four years. For example, in 2010, there were only 422 confirmed cases in England and Wales for the whole year - but then in 2012, there were over 7,000 confirmed cases.

Whooping cough symptoms

Usually whooping cough presents itself as a dry, persistent and irritating cough. You might find you have severe coughing fits. Often this will be followed by a whooping noise, that's why it's called 'whooping cough'. A runny nose, fever and even vomiting after coughing are common symptoms, too.

The signs to look out for in babies are:

  • Early symptoms include cold and flu-like symptoms including a runny nose, sneezing and a slight fever
  • After about a week, a dry cough may develop
  • Intense coughing with a distinctive 'whooping' sound between bouts. These can last for up to a couple of minutes and produce thick mucus

What does whooping cough sound like?

The below video, released by Mayo Clinic, illustrates the distinctive sound of a baby girl suffering from whooping cough.


Please remember that some very young children can experience whooping cough without the 'whooping' noise.

Whooping cough treatment

By the time a patient with whooping cough comes to the surgery, the infection has normally cleared up a little and is no longer contagious. However, if it is picked up early enough (the first few weeks), then your GP might give you some antibiotics to make you feel better and stop the infection spreading.

If your doctor prescribes antibiotics for whooping cough then infected adults and children should rest at home until they have finished the five-day course of treatment. Sometimes other family members will also be given antibiotics or a vaccine booster if they've already been vaccinated against whooping cough. Remember to keep young babies away from infected family members as they are the most vulnerable.

Simple things like getting plenty of rest and drinking lots of fluids will also help. Sometimes young babies can get severe complications and will need to go to hospital.

Whooping cough vaccination

Often adults can get whooping cough if their immunity has decreased, although they tend to get less unwell with it, but it's definitely worth getting vaccinated. This helps protect more people. Also, there's less chance of causing serious complications to a baby if you've had your whooping cough jab.

Babies are vaccinated against whooping cough by the 5-in-1 vaccination at Eight, 12 and 16 weeks old.

The whooping cough vaccine in pregnancy

The NHS advises pregnant women to help protect their babies by getting vaccinated – ideally from 16 weeks up to 32 weeks pregnant. If for any reason you miss having the vaccine, you can still have it up until you go into labour, although this isn't ideal, as your baby is less likely to get protection from you.

Getting vaccinated while you're pregnant is highly effective in protecting your baby from developing whooping cough in the first few weeks of their life, as the immunity provided by the vaccine will pass to your baby through the placenta, providing passive protection for them until they are old enough to be routinely vaccinated against whooping cough at two months old.

Remember, as always, your GP is a good starting point. If you're really worried about your or your child's symptoms, then go to your nearest A&E.