Respiratory Health

Violent Coughing: Could It Indicate a Serious Infection?

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By Apollo 24/7, Published on - 22 October 2021, Updated on - 18 October 2022

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According to the World Health Organization (WHO), more than 1,50,000 cases of whooping cough were reported in 2018 globally. Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, is a contagious respiratory disease caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis. Pertussis leads to violent coughing, which can make it hard to breathe along with whooping sounds from the chest on taking deep breaths. It can spread easily through the infected droplets produced while coughing or sneezing. Pertussis can affect anyone but if left untreated, it can be life-threatening for infants.

What are the signs of whooping cough?

After getting exposed to the bacterium, the symptoms of pertussis may take 5 days to 3 weeks to appear. Initially, the symptoms of pertussis that last for 1 to 2 weeks include:

  • Cold
  • Runny nose
  • Mild cough 
  • Low-grade fever 
  • Sudden pause in breathing (apnea), commonly seen in children

After 2 weeks, the disease may progress and result in severe symptoms, which include: 

  • Violent and rapid coughing fits 
  • A high-pitched whooping sound while breathing in after the fits
  • Vomiting during or after the coughing fits
  • Feeling extremely exhausted after the fits

Coughing fits can be more prevalent at night and if left untreated, they can continue for up to 10 weeks or more. 

Can whooping cough be prevented?

Whooping cough can be prevented by getting vaccinated against the infection-causing bacteria. DTaP is the vaccine given to infants to develop immunity against three deadly diseases: diphtheria, tetanus, and whooping cough (pertussis). The first dose of the vaccine is administered to babies at the age of 6 weeks, while the following doses are given 4 to 8 weeks apart, at the age of 10 to 14 weeks and 14 to 18 weeks. 

The booster doses of the vaccine can be given in three different stages of life, which include:

  • Adolescence: Usually the immunity from the pertussis vaccine decreases by the age of 11 years, therefore, it is recommended to get a booster shot to prevent the disease.
  • Adulthood: Adults who have never received the DTaP vaccine can be given Tdap vaccine (Tetanus toxoid, reduced diphtheria toxoid, and acellular pertussis vaccine) later in life to provide immunization against the three deadly bacterial infections. This vaccine also reduces the risk of spreading infection among infants.
  • Pregnancy:  Pregnant women are advised to get a dose of the Tdap vaccine, preferably in the early days of the third trimester, i.e., between 27 and 36 weeks of gestation. Tdap vaccine protects the baby from whooping cough during the first few months after being born.

Treatment for whooping cough

People suffering from pertussis require antibiotics such as azithromycin, clarithromycin, and erythromycin to treat the infection. However, the cough may take time to resolve. Infants and children often require hospitalization as they are at risk of developing pneumonia and other complications such as episodes of apnoea, difficulty in breathing, and dehydration.

Some measures that may help manage the symptoms of whooping cough at home include:

  • Taking enough rest as continuous coughing can result in fatigue.
  • Consuming fluids such as water, juice, soup or broths to avoid dehydration.
  • Keeping the house free of irritants such as tobacco smoke and dust mites as they can trigger coughing fits.
  • Covering the mouth with a handkerchief or a mask to prevent the transmission of infection.
  • Consuming smaller meals frequently to avoid vomiting after coughing. 


Whooping cough can cause serious disease in infants, teens and even adults. The symptoms of pertussis initially mimic those of the common cold but later can result in coughing fits, apnoea, and vomiting. Whooping cough can be prevented by getting the DTaP vaccine during childhood and Tdap vaccines later in life. People experiencing coughing fits for more than a week should consult a doctor immediately for further examination.  

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