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Health Topics > Healthy Outlook > Whooping Cough May Feel Similar to a Cold

Whooping Cough May Feel Similar to a Cold

Published by Contra Costa Times

Posted on Wednesday, August 4, 2010
By Veda Bhatt, MD

A cough can be a big deal these days. Low immunization rates, from fear of immunization side effects or lack of access to health care, have led to a spike in pertussis, also known as whooping cough.

This is particularly worrisome for infants and unimmunized children, who can suffer complications like pneumonia, seizures and hernias from coughing. State health officials have warned that whooping cough could hit a 50-year high.

Some mistakenly think that whooping cough is only a disease of children. In fact, though, older relatives are the cause of more than half of all whooping cough infections among infants and young children. Until recently, adults did not routinely get pertussis immunizations.

Whooping cough is caused by a bacterium that irritates the airways and causes violent coughing. Without treatment, usually with the antibiotics erythromycin or azithromycin, an infected person can spread the disease for up to three weeks after onset of cough.

As with many contagious diseases, the best protection is vaccination. Unfortunately, those most likely to suffer serious complications from whooping cough—infants and young children—cannot be fully immunized. Thus, anyone age 7 or older that comes in contact with infants and young children should receive a pertussis vaccine. Currently, the pertussis vaccine also includes protection from tetanus and diphtheria.

Note that the tetanus shot you received for a cut may not have contained the pertussis component. So check with your doctor.

New this year, pertussis vaccines are being routinely given to pregnant women and those older than 65 years. Contra Costa Health Services is also offering free vaccinations. Times and locations are listed at

If infected with pertussis, infants often become quite ill and need to be hospitalized. Older children and adults can usually remain home with the help of antibiotics.

Here are some tips to help recovery and prevent transmission:
 - Rest. Lying down can actually help the body heal.
 - Drink liquids such as water, juice and soup, to avoid dehydration.
 - Eat small meals after coughing fits. Eating can trigger a coughing fit, but eating after a coughing fit usually does not.
 - Use a humidifier to soothe airways and lungs. Keep the air cool.
 - Cover coughs with your wrist or a tissue and wash your hands frequently, especially after coughing.
 - Stay home from work or school if you are coughing. Limit exposure to public places and infants until having taken antibiotics for 5 days.

Whooping cough symptoms often include a running nose, itchy eyes, dry cough, mucus and a mild fever. Although these symptoms are also found in other illnesses—such as croup, colds and the flu—there are some key characteristics that distinguish whooping cough.

The "whoop." There can be a high-pitch whooping sound at the end of coughs. This usually occurs only in sick infants.

Nighttime coughing fits. After a week or two, the occasional dry coughs turn into long coughing fits, which usually occur in the middle of the night. These coughing spells can cause a child to vomit and turn blue in the face.

Symptoms vanish. Once the coughing spell ends, the person may seem fine, and completely healthy.

Find out more about pertussis and how to protect yourself at

Dr. Bhatt practices family medicine at the Contra Costa Regional Medical Center in Martinez.

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