Whooping Cough or a Cold?

Hard to tell at first but whooping cough lasts longer

Girl coughing. Is it whooping cough or a cold?

Hard to tell at first but whooping cough lasts longer

New reports about the spread of whooping cough in California have hit home in San Diego.


San Diego County reported 1,154 whooping cough cases last year, the highest of any county in the state and the third highest in the region in more than 40 years. So far this year, 56 cases have been reported, compared to 52 at the same time last year, according to the county’s Health and Human Services Agency.


Because the initial symptoms are easily mistaken for a common cold, adults and adolescents may not realize they have the illness, and pass it on to others.


“There is good reason to be concerned,” said Mark Shalauta, MD, a family medicine physician at Scripps Clinic Rancho Bernardo. “Colds and whooping cough begin with similar symptoms, which can include a runny nose, mild cough, sneezing, congestion and maybe a slight fever. It’s hard to tell the difference at first,” he said.


But whooping cough — also called pertussis — is a highly contagious illness that gets worse over time and doesn’t go away on its own. Infants and young children are most at risk.


One in five of the county’s whooping cough cases last year involved children under three years of age and 52 percent were between the ages of 10 and 17, according to the Health and Human Services Agency.


Physician-prescribed antibiotics can ease symptoms and help keep whooping cough from spreading to others.

Whooping cough symptoms

So when should you become concerned that a prolonged runny nose and cough is something more dangerous? Those early mild signs will worsen after a week or so and include these tell-tale symptoms:


  • Uncontrolled coughing spasms that can be so severe they cause vomiting or gagging
  • A crowing (whooping) sound when breathing in
  • Choking or turning blue or red
  • Noticeable pauses in breathing or breathing difficulty
  • Infants may not cough or exhibit the characteristic whooping sound at all. Instead, they may struggle to breath.


If your child stops breathing, even for an instant, or has a blue color to his or her skin, call 911 immediately.

How to protect yourself and your family

Keeping your hands clean is one of the most important ways to avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others. Remember to wash your hands frequently with soap and clean running water.


If you or someone in your family has been in contact with someone who has a confirmed diagnosis of whooping cough, check with your primary care doctor about post-exposure prophylaxis. This includes a course of antibiotics to help prevent the disease.


Check with your doctor to see if everyone is up-to-date with the appropriate number of DTaP (children under 7) or Tdap (adolescent and adult) vaccine doses. The protection you get from the childhood whooping cough vaccine wanes after a while.


Women who are pregnant should receive a Tdap vaccine in their third trimester. This creates antibodies that the mother transmits to the baby, which protects the baby for weeks to months after birth, when infants are most susceptible to illnesses such as whooping cough.

Whooping cough treatment

Whooping cough is usually treated with antibiotics. Rest, plenty of fluids and a humidifier to keep the air moist will also help speed recovery. Over-the-counter cough remedies are not recommended. Infants and children with severe pertussis may have to be admitted to the hospital for treatment.


“When in doubt, call your doctor’s office. Our job is to help you distinguish a run-of-the-mill cold from something more serious. Working together with your doctor, you can decide whether the type and duration of symptoms warrants an in-person examination,” Dr. Shalauta said.