Whooping Cough

Whooping Cough Basics

Acronyms Medical

Whooping cough (pertussis) is an infectious disease of the bronchi and airways caused by bacteria. It is triggered by Bordetella pertussis Balterium. Although whooping cough is generally known as a childhood disease, adolescents and adults are also increasingly becoming ill. There is a vaccination against whooping cough.

What is whooping cough?

The bacterium Bordetella pertussis as the pathogen and cause of whooping cough is spread by droplet infection. When you speak, cough or sneeze, the pathogens become airborne and are inhaled by people in the area. See AbbreviationFinder for abbreviations related to Whooping Cough.

Whooping cough (sticky cough), or medically pertussis, is a highly contagious infectious disease caused by bacteria infecting the patient’s nose, throat, trachea, and lungs. As the name suggests, whooping cough manifests itself in spasmodic coughing fits, which are followed by gasping for air (shortness of breath, pathological breathing noises)).

The disease is very protracted (several weeks to months) and ends fatally in one in a thousand patients. Babies in their first six months of life are particularly at risk because they can suddenly stop breathing.

Whooping cough is by no means just a childhood disease. People of all ages can be affected. After the illness has been overcome, there is immunity for about four to twelve years. Another infection cannot be ruled out afterwards. Immunity lasts for a similar length of time after vaccination against whooping cough.


The bacterium Bordetella pertussis as the pathogen and cause of whooping cough is spread by droplet infection. When you speak, cough or sneeze, the pathogens become airborne and are inhaled by people in the area. This is how the bacteria get into the respiratory tract, where they settle in the mucous membranes.

Here they multiply and run their own metabolism. The bacteria produce various proteins, some of which as toxins (poisons) destroy the mucous membranes and weaken the immune system. They also damage surrounding tissue and thus cause the typical symptoms of the disease.

The pathogens that cause whooping cough are particularly infectious. More than three quarters of the people who come into contact with them fall ill. In addition to Bordetella pertussis, Bordetella parapertussis can also lead to the clinical picture of whooping cough, but in most cases these infections are shorter and less severe or even silent.

Symptoms, Ailments & Signs

With whooping cough, the symptoms and symptoms often last for weeks or even months. The signs of the disease appear in three stages. In the catarrhal stage, the symptoms are similar to those of a cold. Those affected suffer from sneezing, runny nose, cough and hoarseness. A slight fever also sets in.

Sometimes there is also conjunctivitis, which, like the other signs, lasts for one to two weeks. In the second stage, whooping cough proper develops. The sick suffer from severe fits of coughing with wheezing when inhaling. This stage lasts three to six weeks, with the coughing fits taking a month to subside. The coughing fits occur particularly in children and adolescents.

They can be recognized by the fact that the patient coughs several times with outstretched tongue and then breathes in gaspingly. The wheezing noise accompanied by a tough, glassy sputum is typical. Many sufferers vomit or have a fever. The symptoms appear mainly at night and in the morning hours.

Other symptoms may occur depending on age, such as cessation of breathing in infants and dry cough in adults. In the last stage, the symptoms slowly subside. Whooping cough is over after six to ten weeks.

course of the disease

Whooping cough disease usually progresses in three stages, which are characterized by different symptoms:

The first, cold-like stage (stage catarrhale) lasts about one to two weeks. Symptoms appear that are similar to a cold, such as sneezing, runny nose, mild cough, hoarseness or slight fever. The greatest risk of infection already exists in this phase.

The second stage is the seizure stage (Stadium convulsivum), which lasts two to six weeks. This is where the typical symptoms of whooping cough appear: Strong, spasmodic coughing attacks with tongue out are accompanied by gasping inhalation. The coughing attacks are repeated at short intervals and often end in retching and vomiting. Coughing attacks occur more frequently at night and after exertion such as sport or stress.

Whooping cough is also a threat because of the occurrence of severe concomitant diseases such as pneumonia, otitis media or cerebral hemorrhage. The stage decrementi is the last phase of the disease, in which the symptoms slowly become weaker and weaker. Left untreated, it lasts six to ten weeks.


In the decrementi stage, the symptoms gradually decrease, but it is usually too late for a causal therapy for whooping cough. Accordingly, it can still be treated with antibiotics, which limits the course of the disease in this last phase to a length of up to six weeks. If left untreated, the cough that is still present and the spasmodic coughing attacks can last for another ten weeks.

Especially in infants, pertussis leads more quickly to dangerous swelling of the airways and, as a result, to breathing pauses. The longer the body is affected by whooping cough, the more likely it is that the symptoms will become more severe. Secondary infections of the lungs (15 to 20 percent of cases) and middle ear are common. Seizures, which lead to a temporary lack of oxygen supply to the brain, affect up to four percent of sufferers. Possible consequential damage depends on the duration of the oxygen deficiency.

Brain involvement occurs in 0.5 percent of cases due to toxins produced by the pertussis causative agents. Such encephalopathy always leaves behind tissue damage. The consequential damage ranges from motor impairments to permanent sensory difficulties and can also impair cognitive performance. Younger people are often more severely affected than older people. One in a thousand infected dies from the disease.

When should you go to the doctor?

If the classic whooping cough symptoms persist for more than a week, a doctor should be consulted. Treating whooping cough is essential to avoid serious complications. Therefore, a doctor should be called in at the first sign of illness, who can clarify the symptoms and, if necessary, treat them directly on site. If you develop a high fever or shortness of breath, it is best to consult a doctor on the same day. A visit to the hospital is indicated for circulatory problems. The sick person should be examined immediately and make sure that the whooping cough is not caused by a serious illness.

At the latest when the whooping cough significantly affects well-being or causes other health problems, the symptoms must be taken to the doctor. Neurological deficits indicate brain involvement and must be treated immediately in a clinic. Children, elderly and sick people as well as pregnant women should always have whooping cough examined by a doctor to avoid complications. In addition to the family doctor, the ENT doctor or a lung specialist can be consulted.

Treatment & Therapy

The course of the disease in whooping cough can only be alleviated and shortened if antibiotic therapy is started in good time, i.e. during the catarrhal stage or the early convulsive stage. But the administration of antibiotics is also useful at a later point in time, as this breaks the chain of infection.

Babies suffering from whooping cough have to go to the hospital because they often cannot cough up the mucus that develops on their own. In addition to drug therapy, simple measures can alleviate the symptoms: a quiet environment, plenty of fluids and many small meals are important general measures. Hanging wet towels in the bedroom can reduce nighttime coughing fits.

Outlook & Forecast

Whooping cough is usually caused by a bacterial infection. For the affected person, an existing whooping cough is often a very unpleasant matter, since whooping cough is very difficult to cough up. It is also a very dry cough that should usually be treated with medication. If the affected person decides to undergo such treatment, antibacterial medication can bring about rapid improvement or complete healing. After two to three days, the cough should slowly subside and the resulting sore throat should also improve.

If the affected person does not receive medical or drug treatment for an existing whooping cough, considerable complications can be expected. The intensity of whooping cough will increase significantly, making medical attention inevitable. As soon as the first signs of an aggravation of the whooping cough can be seen, the visit to the doctor must not be put off. With appropriate treatment, an existing whooping cough can be effectively combated, so that a complete and timely healing can take place.

If whooping cough does not improve after a few days, medical treatment should be resorted to. This can avoid complications.


Even after antibiotic therapy has ended, the symptoms of whooping cough persist for a long time. This is due to the damaged mucous membranes and cilia in the bronchi as well as ongoing irritation of the lung tissue by bacterial toxins, which are only gradually broken down by the body. The focus of aftercare is therefore on measures to restore the mucous membranes; also to prevent secondary infections of the weakened airways with other pathogens.

Regular inhalations with hot water and a few teaspoons of sea salt help the damaged bronchial tubes to regenerate and also relieve the dry cough that is often still present. The addition of dried thyme to the inhalation can also support the healing of inflamed tissue in the bronchi and the removal of toxins. Increasing the air humidity to 40 to 50 percent in the sleeping area, for example with an air humidifier or by boiling water, is helpful so that the night’s sleep, which is necessary for healing, is not interrupted by coughing fits.

Even after surviving an infection, healed patients can become infected again with the pathogen unnoticed after a while and thus infect other people, especially infants and small children. As soon as your symptoms have completely disappeared, you should have your vaccination protection checked by a doctor and, if necessary, refreshed as a final aftercare measure.

You can do that yourself

Whooping cough does not necessarily require medical treatment. Some self-help measures and household and natural remedies are just as effective as medicines from the pharmacy.

Basically, the following applies to all those affected: drink a lot. Classic herbal teas, tap water or mild fruit juices are recommended. In the first few days, the diet should consist of small, light meals such as soup or baby food. Along with this, bed rest is important. The patient should sleep a lot – preferably in a warm environment (up to 21 °C) with high humidity.

In addition, various home remedies can relieve the symptoms of pertussis. Inhaling hot water with sea salt or chamomile blossoms has proven effective. An effective home remedy is a decoction of sour apple cider with sugar and fennel, which is best taken in sips. Homeopathy recommends the preparations Belladonna, Carbo vegetabilis and Ledum palustre, among others.

If the symptoms have not subsided after a few days, a doctor’s visit is recommended. Babies and small children should always see a pediatrician if they have whooping cough. The doctor can give further tips and measures to help pertussis heal quickly.

Whooping Cough