Whooping cough - Treatment 

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.


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


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The 13 comments posted are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

Harry55 said on 17 September 2014

I am 61 years of age. I started coughing violently and choking 9 weeks ago now. I went to my GP and was treated for a chest infection. I asked for antibiotics but they were not prescribed. The condition got worse and it was not till several weeks later that I was diagnosed with whooping cough. By then it was too late for the antibiotics to help me but nonetheless I was given three separate dozes of antibiotics to stop the spread - but by then it was almost too late. It took me to have a coughing fit in my doctors surgery to finally get the diagnoses. I have been in A & E twice being unable to breath. I am now on a long term course of steroids but being diabetic there are serious side effects. This is a very debilitating and stressful condition. I have never felt so ill and down over such a prolonged period and it is continuing now into my 10th week. There seems to be little research on adults with the condition and there seems to a general lack of knowledge amongst GPs about the condition which if they do diagnose correctly it is often too late to be impactive. I would urge the NHS for more research and speak to adult victims of this horrible condition. I am told it could last for anything up to 6 months. Its just awful. I hope others will join me and call for research and more support to GPs.

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Lindy65 said on 08 July 2014

I just wanted to echo what others have said. Whooping cough in adults is NOT always a mild illness. My husband aged 54 was diagnosed in March and is still coughing, 5 months later. Usually energetic, he's suffering from exhaustion and depression because of the sheer duration of it and is concerned that his respiratory system isn't getting a chance to recover.
Initially dismissed as just another winter virus, he missed the chance for antibiotics to help, which crucially need to be prescribed in the first 3 weeks to be effective. Also when you are at your most contagious.

Consequently my two older sons, aged 22 and 24 also contracted whooping cough. They all went back to the doctor, who then suspected whooping cough as by now all 3 had the distinctive, distressing cough where after a series of quick coughs, you exhale completely and struggle to get your breath back (which makes the whooping sound) and sometimes vomit up food. They each had blood tests, which came back positive, via official letter stating it was a notifiable illness and stressing the risks to others. I should add that both sons had the vaccination when they were little, but we were told that imunisation wears off at about age 10. Something no-one seems to be aware of.

The concern is that as with others' experiences, if whooping cough isn't getting diagnosed early enough, people are still highly contagious and mixing with others. My husband has been really poorly with it, both physically because of the continuous jolt the cough gives the body each time, together with the impact it's had on his well being mentally. All the doctor can do is offer him an inhaler, which takes the edge off, but he's been told it has to run its course.

Hope this might be useful. Best wishes.

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Talkie61 said on 24 April 2014

I have posted my "progress" on complications page.

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Woola56 said on 20 February 2014

I have been generally unwell for several weeks now. fro 3 weeks I have had aching joints, runny nose and a cough that is getting worse. I can taste blood when I cough.
My sister, 60 years old and her husband 63, also his sister have had the blood test for whooping cough which has proved positve. I have been in contact with all 3 people.
As I have a history of oral cancer. My Gp sent me for an Xray to make sure it hadnt spread. This was clear, as was the blood test to check for Arthritis. One dr suggested that the pain is all in my head! The first one I saw suggested that I have developed Asthma. Never smoked, only passively fro 57 years
Getting a Gp to complete tests these day is like getting blood out of a stone. All down to budgets.
After reading about the general sympttoms I will be phoning my surgery for an appointment, I tried today and cant get one out of work hours until Thursday 28th February, to push for a test. I had to to do this when my ulcers wouldnt go away, I kept being told there wasn't a problem, turned out to be cancer. Wish me luck!

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Elinor3107 said on 01 February 2014

I was in contact with whooping cough between 29/12/13 - 05/01/14 in Birmingham. I now know that I have whooping cough. It will have to run its course (approx 12 wks) Its highly contagious! Treatment with antibiotics like erythromycin stops it infecting others but wont actually stop it unless you have the meds early in the 1st week.
My symptoms started about 12 Jan 14 with an irritating cough based just below back of my throat around my voicebox. From 20 Jan 14 the cough became much worse & I started to have bouts of coughing which left me gasping for breath - especially at night & in the morning. I also developed what I can only describe as a runny mucusy cold at the back if my throat (not in my nose). The bouts of coughing started to leave me gasping for breath & making the whooping noise. On 25 Jan 14 I had an attack when I was whooping and my throat closed up - I could not breathe at all - I lost control of my bladder and wet myself. I thought I was going to die - I couldnt even call out for help. My son came to assist me & I came round. The experience was so distressing that I sat & cried afterwards. I saw the out of hours doctor who examined me, sounded my chest & said it wasnt likely to be whooping cough because my chest was clear! I told her I was sure it was as I had been in close contact with someone who had it & I had not been immunised as a child. She reluctantly prescribed 7 days of erythromycin, a blue inhaler & a cough bottle. I left feeling very down & like a hypochondriac. Since then coughing/whooping bouts have continued & I now have an extremely painful rib on my rhs - it feels bruised & painful to touch. My antibiotics finish today & my symptoms continue. In my research Ive discovered that doctors are reluctant to diagnose for some reason - yet this is easily caught & dangerous to young, old & vulnerable people. Hope this helps

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sweetpea101 said on 20 January 2014

Hi I am 41 and got sick with a cold just before Christmas over a month ago. Because I work in retail I couldn't take time off. Last week of Dec I went to the Dr to get an antibiotic ad I had a severe upper respiratory infection. My manager is not keen on sick and so I probably returned to work too soon. I took 2 days off. I started to feel better. About a week ago I started with severe coughing attacks. So bad I was wetting myself. I went back to the Dr and wad told I he was seeing this a lot and I had swelling of the air ways. My lungs where clear. I was given a pump and some co codamol to ease coughing at night and make me sleep. I progressively got worse and on Friday my husband phoned wanted to call an ambulance as I was violently coughing and vomiting and had completely lost my breath. I was embarrassed thinking I was just having a bad coughing spell. But as the weekend progressed I was better in the day and very bad in the night and went on to have another severe attack early hours of Sunday morning. This morning I went back to the dr. Insisted on seeing someone else. Explained my issue and she said I seemed to have all the symptoms of WC. It all makes sense now. But I have been working with the public and it is where I assume I have caught it. The dr said that many mosern mothers no longer believe in immunizations and this is causing previously unheard of sicknesses to be spreading. She told me a friend of hers who is a pediatrician has also just caught it from a patient. So I think it is more commonly happening without proper diagnosis and that the problem is bigger than we realise. I have been immunised as a child but the dr said it does wane over time. Because my immune system had been low I have come into contact with a someone who has it. Pretty scary stuff!

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Talkie61 said on 15 September 2013

Thanks to this website I was able to determine that I had indeed got Whooping Cough, at age 61!
I am an asthmatic and started with a sore throat and cough around 3 Aug 2013,when I woke up with a thick film covering my throat and my eyes sensitive to light, A week later it had started to get bad with the cough and throat feeling something had got stuck in it. One evening I went to answer my phone and found I had no voice! As my job involves talking all the time I could not go to work.. I went to A+E and they thought it was my asthma and gave me steroids, which my GP did as well.I went to another A+E and they had a look down my throat and said nothing there. No tempreture ,X-rays showed no chest infection.
I started the whooping with the cough, especially at night. It got so bad, with me panicking I wasn't going to get my breath, my husband had to call an ambulance, which took me to A+E and the "clever" doctor there said it was Gastric Reflux!!! By now I was chocking when I took medication and could not drink anything other than ice cold water, slowly sipped.
I read this website and suggested to my doctor it might be Whooping cough and he did the blood test, and last Wednesday the Health Protection Agency phoned me to tell me YES, I had been infected with Whooping Cough (Pertussis). I am still coughing, and chocking and getting really fed up. I live in central London and have no direct contact with children so wonder where I got it from.

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d1234 said on 11 June 2013

I have had whooping cough for 4 weeks now but only just realized what it was once I checked the symptoms and they all matched exactly (fever, followed by dry cough which develops into chesty cough with clear mucus and coughing fits where I am unable to breath, coupled with classic 'whooping' sound). I went to the doctor who would not even entertain the idea I could have this and told me it was extremely unlikely as I had been immunized. Clearly if the healthcare providers do not recognize it as a problem something as highly infectious as this could build and build until it becomes an epidemic.

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ArronC08 said on 21 March 2013

I live in a household with 4 other people, three of us have been given treatment (despite only two of us showin symptoms) and two of us have not.

The walk in centre in coventry advised me get into contact with people who we've had contact with other the last couple of weeks to advise them to get preventative treatment but many of them are being turned away by their GP surgeries.

What's going on? Is this not a serious public health issue as stated on the HPA pages?

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CaseyMae said on 07 March 2013

I am very worried as my Grandson who is 3 on 25/03, has today been diagnosed with WC. He has been fully immunised. Further, his sister is only 12 wks old and has had received 2 lots of immunisations and is due her third and final dose on 21/03. They, together with their parents and my husband and I, have been put on antibiotics, but I am terrified of the baby getting it after reading it can be fatal to small babies - she weighs 13lb. Any advice from anyone please?

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susiemoomoo said on 31 January 2013

i had a dry cough for 3 weeks, went to the docs who said I was fine, 3 days later I went back and was prescribed 7 days amoxicillin, still no joy, back to the docs 2nd lot of antibiotics, then my daughter started coughing, she too had 5 days antibiotics. Went back 3rd time after talking to a friend who suggested whooping cough, doctor agreed, and now we just have to get on with it. Ive been sick after a bout, stopped breathing for a few seconds, its scary!! I only get the 'whooping' sound occassionally, but my daughter has it every night. I havent had a proper sleep for 3 weeks now, Im tired and not at work, luckily I get ssp. I dont think I'll be back for a couple more weeks!!

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Pete Austin said on 20 January 2013

Whooping Cough is also known as the "100 day cough", and I and two family members are still recovering from it. This Web Page is fine about the first couple of weeks, but says nothing about the final 90% of the time for which you will be ill. Here is what we found worked for adults with Whooping Cough...

Avoid the following, which will make you cough: laughing, yawning, breathing deeply, eating, lying on your back, drinking, cold air. Be very careful for the first few weeks; stay out of the cold and stop exercising.

Don't be polite. You will cough repeatedly, like a machine gun. If you keep your mouth closed, the pressure causes headaches, so open your mouth fully when you cough (hold a handkerchief in front to catch the spittle). If you are eating/drinking, you will not be able to help yourself breathing in and may get crumbs on the back of your throat, so spit the food out.

Gargling with cold water reduces the number of coughing fits. Some people recommend a little salt too. Inhaling water vapor from hot water works too, but we found it too much hassle.

One of us could not breathe for 15 seconds after fits of coughing. If this happens to you, treat it as emergency. Even though the whooping cough bacteria has gone, other opportunistic bugs may have moved in. Use your camera to take pictures of the beak of your throat to convince the doctor that it really is still bad and you may need antibiotics.

Pholcodine Linctus BP is the only medicine that worked for us in controlling coughing. It's pretty cheap, from pharmacists without prescription, and it works by making the "cough center" of the brain less sensitive.

After about 100 days, you will no longer be coughing much, but you will have been doing little exercise and so will be pretty unfit. Exercise gently and work up towards your normal fitness regime.

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giantpetrel said on 30 November 2012

3 weeks ago I felt a little weak as if coming down with a virus. 2 days later I started suffering numerous explosive coughing attacks. As the days went on, these attacks intensified in frequency to the point I was vomiting after most attacks (which eased the symptoms fo a little while). I work in retail (currently working 6 days per week) and continued to work through the past 3 weeks. I am casual so don't get sick pay and earn no money if not working so had little choice. After 3 weeks, I am now down to one-2 coughing explosions per day and am feeling much better in myself.
I strongly suggest that the govt issue a warning that WP is out there. I was never immunised as a child and worry that older weaker people are being more severely affected. than myself.
I am sad that I had no choice but to keep working (to feed myself and pay the bills) although I had no idea that WP was still around. Everyone I work with are still healthry so I hope that I haven't negatively affected anyone.

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