When the B. pertussis bacterium infect the lungs of a child, the result is a severe cough and whopping sound when breathing. Whooping cough can cause death. The condition is highly contagious, but outcome is good when children are treated with antibiotics. The condition usually affected infants and very young children, but cases in older children do occur.

Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, is caused by Bordetella pertussis. Also known as B. pertussis, the bacterium infects the respiratory system. Infants and children are vaccinated against the disease, which once killed more than 10,000 people per year in the United States alone. Cases of whooping cough were rarely reported until 2004, when a huge spike in whooping cough was reported. The cases, topping more than 25,000, were diagnosed in infants who had yet to be fully vaccinated.

Whopping cough is characterized by an extremely harsh cough followed by a whopping sound. The sound occurs when a child breathes in after coughing because the breathing passages are swollen from coughing. For the first few weeks, coughing is similar to that associated with a common cold. Other cold symptoms like runny nose and sneezing may be present. After a few weeks, occasional coughing leads to coughing spells that may last more than a minute. Some children vomit after longer coughing spells.

Whopping cough, or pertussis, is contagious. The illness is passed from the infected child to others in spittle. Spittle are small drops of fluid that escape from the mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing. Children are contagious for up to two weeks unless antibiotics are started. After starting antibiotics, children are only contagious for about 5 days.

An official diagnosis of whooping cough is only given after mucus samples are taken from the mouth and nose. These samples are tested for B. pertussis. When the test comes back positive, the doctor may ask for a chest X-ray for further diagnostic use. Treatment with antibiotics will be started after a positive mucus test, maybe before.


Antibiotics are prescribed to patients with a positive pertussis test or symptoms that lead the pediatrician to believe the patient has whooping cough. Antibiotics are generally prescribed for two weeks and all antibiotics need to be completed. In some cases, children are hospitalized for severe symptoms. Infants under six months of age have a 75-percent chance of being hospitalized.