Treatment for Whooping Cough

The goals of whooping cough treatment are to relieve symptoms, prevent complications, and reduce the risk for spreading pertussis. Infants, especially babies younger than 1 year of age, often are hospitalized to treat or help prevent serious complications.

Anyone who has been diagnosed with or exposed to pertussis should be treated with antibiotics (e.g., erythromycin, azithromycin) and immunized against the disease by completing the vaccine series or receiving a booster shot as quickly as possible. Patients with whooping cough should be isolated for at least 5 days after beginning antibiotic therapy.

Antibiotics reduce the risks for pertussis transmission and for complications, but they usually do not improve the course of the disease unless they are administered soon after exposure. Preventative antibiotics (called prophylactic treatment or chemoprophylaxis) may be prescribed for members of the patient's household and anyone in recent, close contact with him or her (e.g., classmates, teachers, coworkers).

Parents, caregivers, and patients should be sure that all antibiotics are taken exactly as directed. Bordetella pertussis bacteria may become resistant to commonly-used antibiotics, resulting in serious illness that can be more difficult to treat. Side effects associated with antibiotics used to treat whooping cough usually are mild and include nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and abdominal pain.

Pertussis treatment also often involves supportive care. Children, adolescents, and adults with whooping cough should:

  • get plenty of rest in a quiet environment to minimize coughing,
  • drink extra fluids to prevent dehydration, and
  • eat small, frequent meals to maintain strength and reduce vomiting.

In many cases, very young children and patients with severe symptoms require medical care in a hospital setting. Necessary treatment measures may include intravenous fluids and antibiotics, nutrition support, breathing assistance (e.g., supplemental oxygen, ventilation), and suction to manage respiratory secretions.

Pertussis Prognosis

In most cases, the expected outcome (prognosis) for patients with whooping cough is very good. However, the chronic cough associated with pertussis can take 1 to 3 months to resolve and some patients experience a relapse of symptoms for 6 months to a year or even longer. Infants under 1 year of age are at increased risk for serious complications and often are hospitalized for treatment.

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 31 Aug 2009

Last Modified: 13 Oct 2015