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Pertussis (Whooping Cough): When to Go to Emergency

Pertussis (also known as whooping cough) is a highly contagious bacterial infection of the respiratory tract. It spreads through droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Because pertussis can be very serious, it’s important to know when to seek medical care.

Woman sitting in rocking chair with crying baby.

Risk Factors

Babies and preschool-age children are most at risk. At 2 months of age, most infants in the United States receive a vaccine to prevent pertussis. But the effects of the vaccine fade as children get older, so teens and adults can also get the disease.

When to Go to the Emergency Department (ED)

At first, pertussis may seem like a cold. Your child is likely to have a runny nose, mild fever, and slight cough. After 1 to 2 weeks, the cough tends to become very severe, and coughing spells may last as long as a minute. These produce a “whooping” sound as your child gasps for air. Sometimes, your child may turn red or blue or vomit from the cough. Call your healthcare provider right away if you suspect pertussis. Seek emergency help if your child:

  • Has a blue color to his or her skin (check fingertips and around mouth).

  • Stops breathing, even for a moment.

  • Has a high fever or seizures.

  • Vomits often, or becomes dehydrated.

What to Expect in the ED

A healthcare provider will ask about your child’s symptoms and perform a physical exam. He or she will likely take samples of secretions from your child’s nose or throat. These will be checked in a lab for the bacteria that cause pertussis. Your child will likely have blood tests or x-rays.


Infants and children with severe pertussis are likely to be admitted to the hospital for treatment with antibiotics and fluids. Milder cases may be treated at home with antibiotics, fluids, and bed rest.

The best treatment is prevention: Pertussis vaccines are highly effective, strongly recommended, and save thousands of lives each year. However, immunization against pertussis does not confer life-long immunity. So check with your healthcare provider about boosters for adolescents and adults. 

Author: StayWell Custom Communications
Last Annual Review Date: 5/15/2011
Copyright © The StayWell Company, LLC. except where otherwise noted.
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