Treating whooping cough 

Whooping cough is usually treated with antibiotics at home. Young babies (less than a year old) with whooping cough may need hospital treatment to avoid developing complications.

Babies and young children

Children admitted to hospital to be treated for whooping cough, are usually treated in isolation. This means they will be kept away from other patients to prevent the infection spreading.

Your child may need to be given antibiotics intravenously (straight into a vein through a drip).

If your child is severely affected, they may also need corticosteroid medication to reduce inflammation (swelling) in the airways, making it easier to breathe. Like antibiotics, corticosteroids may be given intravenously.

If your child needs additional help with breathing, they may be given extra oxygen through a facemask. A handheld device called a bulb syringe may also be used to gently suction away any mucus that is blocking their airways.

Severe whooping cough in young babies

Young babies can be severely affected by whooping cough and it can cause significant damage to their lungs. Therefore, they may need a high level of support in hospital, involving:

  • ventilation to support their lungs
  • intravenous medicine to support their blood pressure

If these measures fail, the baby may need extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO). This is similar to a heart-lung bypass machine and delivers oxygen into the blood. For more information, see the Great Ormond Street Hospital fact sheet on ECMO.

Older children and adults

The condition tends to be much less serious in older children and adults and can usually be treated at home with antibiotics and self-help measures.

Antibiotics

If whooping cough is diagnosed during the first three weeks (21 days) of the infection, your GP may prescribe a course of antibiotics to prevent the infection spreading.

Antibiotics will stop you being infectious after five days of taking them. However, without antibiotics, you may still be infectious until three weeks after your intense bouts of coughing start.

If whooping cough is diagnosed in the later stages it's unlikely you'll be prescribed antibiotics as you'll no longer be infectious and they won't improve your symptoms.

Self-help measures

Whooping cough is much less serious in older children and adults than it is in babies and young children. Your GP will usually advise you to manage the infection at home and follow some simple advice:

  • get plenty of rest
  • drink lots of fluids to prevent dehydration
  • clear away excess mucus or vomit during bouts of coughing so it cannot be inhaled and cause choking
  • ibuprofen or paracetamol can be used to relieve other symptoms such as a high temperature and sore throat – aspirin should not be given to children under the age of 16

How to avoid passing on the infection

Whooping cough is highly infectious, so if you or your child have it, it is important to stay away from others until the infection has completely cleared.

The affected person should stay at home until they have completed a five-day course of antibiotics from their GP, or had intense bouts of coughing (paroxysms) for three weeks (whichever is sooner).

Although bouts of coughing may continue after three weeks, it is unlikely you'll still be infectious.

Preventative treatment

Preventative treatment may be recommended for people you live with, if they are vulnerable to infection (known as vulnerable contacts).This includes:

  • newborn babies
  • young children under the age of 12 months who have not received the complete course of the DTaP/IPV/Hib vaccine
  • children under the age of 10 who have not been vaccinated
  • women in the last month of pregnancy
  • people with a weakened immune system, such as people with HIV or people undergoing chemotherapy
  • people with a long-term health condition such as asthma or heart failure

Preventative treatment is also usually recommended if a household member works in a healthcare, social care or childcare facility as they could pass the infection on to other vulnerable contacts.

Preventative treatment usually involves a short course of antibiotics, and in some cases, a booster dose of the vaccine.


Page last reviewed: 01/07/2014

Next review due: 01/07/2016