Definition of Whooping cough

Reviewed on 6/3/2021

Whooping cough: Whooping cough, also known as "pertussis," is a highly contagious acute respiratory illness caused by the Bordetella pertussis bacteria. Whooping cough is characterized by fits of coughing followed by a noisy, "whooping" sound while inhaling.

Usually, whooping cough affects young children, but sometimes teenagers and adults can become infected. Even children, teens, and adults can become infected with Bordetella pertussis although they have previously been immunized with the vaccine diphtheria-pertussis-tetanus (DPT). Immunization with DPT (diphtheria-pertussis-tetanus) provides protection against whooping cough, although the immunity may wear off with age. In adolescents or adults with a history of prior infection or vaccine-induced immunity, classic manifestations may or may not occur. The only symptom may be a prolonged cough.

During the early phase of pertussis, antibiotic treatment may decrease the duration and severity of the cough, but among adolescents and adults, the diagnosis rarely is established during this phase. Antibiotic treatment later in the course of the disease probably does not affect the course of symptoms, but may be useful to reduce the spread of the infection. Usually, treatment for whooping cough is supportive therapy. See DPT immunization, DTaP immunization.


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Jameson, JL, et al. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine, 20th ed. (Vol.1 & Vol.2). McGraw-Hill Education 2018.

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