Whooping Cough


Medically reviewed by Carina Fung, PharmD, BCPPS

Whooping Cough Treatment

It’s important to treat whooping cough15 early on in the progression of the illness. The earlier that someone who is infected—particularly an infant—starts treatment, the better.

If treatment for pertussis is begun within the first 1–2 weeks of illness (before coughing fits and/or “whooping” begin), symptoms can often be lessened. Early treatment can also help prevent spreading the disease to people in close contact with an infected person.

Antibiotic treatment

Antibiotics are often administered to patients with whooping cough. These medications, which target and kill bacteria, help treat and speed up recovery from illnesses like pertussis.

Sometimes, those who live with a family member infected with the illness are given post-exposure anaphylaxis antibiotics to help avoid catching pertussis. Post-exposure prophylaxis regimens are the same as treatment and can help an asymptomatic person who has had contact with a person with pertussis prevent developing symptomatic infection. Post-exposure prophylaxis is generally prescribed to prevent you from catching whooping cough if you:

  • Are a healthcare provider
  • Are pregnant
  • Are younger than 12 months old
  • Have a health condition that puts you at risk for severe illness or complications (such as a compromised immune system or asthma)
  • Live with someone who has whooping cough
  • Live with someone who is at high risk of developing a severe illness or complications from a pertussis infection

There are several types of antibiotics administered to treat whooping cough and speed up recovery; the most common are azithromycin, clarithromycin, and erythromycin.

Healthcare providers may sometimes consider treating potential whooping cough before paroxysms (coughing fits) occur, especially if a patient’s clinical history suggests being at risk for developing serious complications (for example, in infants).

Generally, children older than one years of age are treated within 3 weeks of the onset of a cough, while infants younger than one as well as pregnant women (especially those near term) within 6 weeks of the onset of a cough. Patients with pertussis should avoid contact with young children and infants until they have completed at least five days of appropriate antibiotic therapy.

Unfortunately, there are not many medications or treatments available to help relieve the cough caused by pertussis. Over-the-counter cough medications, for example, are ineffective against whooping cough, and use of them to treat the illness is discouraged.

Pertussis (whooping cough) medicine

Talk with your healthcare provider about possible medications that may help with treatment.

May be prescribed

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Lifestyle and home remedies

There are some at-home remedies and lifestyle habits, however, that may help keep you from getting whooping cough (or feel better if you do get it):

  • Get plenty of rest: Getting even more rest and relaxation than usual may help you feel better and recover more quickly.
  • Drink plenty of fluids: Water and soups are great choices to keep you hydrated. It’s important to watch for signs of dehydration—especially in children—such as chapped or dry lips, crying without tears, and infrequent urination.
  • Eat small meals: In order to prevent or reduce vomiting after coughing fits, eat smaller, more frequent meals rather than large ones.

Whooping cough prevention

There are a number of precautions you can take to avoid catching whooping cough:

  • Maintain good hygiene: Make sure that you and your child wash your hands with warm, soapy water after coughing or sneezing, and before preparing food or eating. If soap and water are not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer.
  • Stay at home when you are sick, and keep children out of school, daycare, or other group activities if they have a cold.
  • Avoid close contact: Do not hug, kiss, or shake hands with others when either of you are sick.
  • Practice respiratory etiquette: Cover your nose and mouth with your elbow (not your hand) when coughing or sneezing. Always use a tissue when possible.
  • Disinfect surfaces: Disinfect kitchen and bathroom surfaces and frequently used objects (such as toys and doorknobs), especially when you or your family members are sick.
  • Avoid colds: Avoid close contact with anyone who is sick with whooping cough.
  • Take care of yourself: Eating well, sleeping sufficiently, and getting exercise may help keep you from catching an illness like pertussis.

Whooping cough vaccine

Being vaccinated against whooping cough is the best way to prevent getting the illness. There are two vaccines16 in the United States that help prevent whooping cough: DTaP and Tdap. These vaccines also provide protection against tetanus17 and diphtheria18.

The whooping cough vaccine consists of a series of 5 injections, typically administered to children at the ages of 2 months, 4 months, 6 months, 15–18 months, and 4–6 years old. Children younger than 7 years of age receive the DTaP vaccine, while older children, teenagers, and adults receive the Tdap vaccine. Babies require 3 doses of DTaP in order to build up high enough levels of protection against diphtheria, tetanus, and whooping cough.

Whooping cough vaccines became widely available to the public in the 1940s. Before then, about 200,000 children were infected and about 9,000 died from pertussis each year in the United States.

After the introduction of the whooping cough vaccine, reported cases of the disease reached an all-time low in the 1980s. Since then, however, the number of reported whooping cough cases has increased. This can be attributed, in part, to improved diagnostic tests, better reporting, and a higher circulation of Bordetella pertussis bacteria.

In studies demonstrating how well the whooping cough component of the DTaP vaccine works for children who receive all five doses, it was shown to fully protect:

  • Nearly all children (98%) within the year following the last dose
  • About 70% of children five years after receiving the last dose of DTaP

In studies demonstrating how well the whooping cough component of the Tdap vaccine works, it was shown to fully protect:

  • About 70% of people within the first year after receiving it
  • About 30–40% of people four years after receiving it

In general, the DTaP vaccine is effective for 8 or 9 children out of 10 who receive it. The effectiveness of the vaccine among children who receive all 5 doses is very high. While vaccinated children and adults can become infected with and spread pertussis, the disease is typically much less serious in vaccinated people.

Most people who receive the whooping cough vaccine do not experience any serious problems as a result. However, as with any other medical procedure, there are a number of side effects19 that may accompany vaccination.

As some people may faint while receiving a vaccine, sitting or lying down for about 15 minutes after receiving a vaccine can prevent injuries caused by a fall. Eating and drinking before receiving a vaccine may help prevent you from fainting or becoming lightheaded. Some people may experience severe pain in the shoulder or difficulty moving the upper arm (where the vaccine is administered).

You should always discuss the proper course of vaccination for you or your child with your healthcare provider.

Disclaimer: The information on this site is generalized and is not medical advice. It is intended to supplement, not substitute for, the expertise and judgment of your healthcare professional. Always seek the advice of your healthcare professional with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard seeking advice or delay in seeking treatment because of something you have read on our site. RxSaver makes no warranty as to the accuracy, reliability or completeness of this information.

If you are in crisis or you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor or 911 immediately.