Whooping cough is a highly contagious disease. It is caused by a bacterium that spreads through droplets projected into the air by someone with the disease. Whooping cough is most common at the end of summer and in the fall.


In general, whooping cough begins with the following symptoms:

  • Light fever
  • Runny nose
  • Red, watery eyes
  • Coughing

After 7 to 14 days the cough then intensifies and becomes more frequent.

The fit of coughing is followed by a high-pitched intake of breath that sounds like a ‘whoop’. Hence the name ‘whooping cough’ is given to the illness. Sometimes, the sufferer may then vomit.

In babies younger than 1 year, the main symptom is apnea, which is the repeated cessation of breathing. They may also experience light coughing or none at all.

Whooping cough lasts 6 to 10 weeks. However, in adolescents it can last longer than 10 weeks. The illness is most serious in babies younger than 1 year.

Whooping cough can lead to many complications.

Incubation period

The incubation period is the time elapsed between exposure to the bacterium responsible for the disease and onset of symptoms. This period generally lasts 5 to 10 days but can go up to 21 days.

Contagious period

The contagious period varies according to the situation:

  • Someone with whooping cough and who has not been treated is contagious up to 3 weeks after starting to cough
  • Someone with whooping cough and who has been treated is contagious up to 5 days after the beginning of treatment
  • Someone who has stopped coughing is unlikely to be contagious and to transmit the disease

When to Consult

Only a healthcare professional can diagnose whooping cough. If you have an excessive or persistent cough, see your doctor or your CLSC. This way, you will know whether or not you have whooping cough and receive treatment if needed. The more prompt the treatment, the more effective it is.

If you have whooping cough, make sure you stay far from young children or women in the final stage of pregnancy. This precaution must be exercised until your treatment is complete.

If you have been in contact with someone with whooping cough, consult your doctor or your CLSC. Some people, pregnant women for example, can receive preventive treatment.


Whooping cough can be treated with antibiotics. This treatment helps reduce risk of transmitting the disease. In some cases, it also reduces symptoms.

To relieve your symptoms, you can take over-the-counter medicine such as acetaminophen, Tylenol® for example, and ibuprophen, Advil® for example.

Avoid taking medication that includes identical ingredients at the same time. For instance, do not take Tylenol® and Tylenol® Sinus together because both medicines contain acetaminophen.

Children and adolescents

If your child is over 3 months old, you can give them acetaminophen, Tylenol® for example. Make sure you follow instructions supplied with the product and according to your child’s weight.

Avoid giving children and adolescents acetylsalicylic acid such as aspirin. In children and adolescents, such medication can lead to a serious illness of the brain and liver called ‘Reye's syndrome’.


Possible complications of whooping cough include:

  • Pneumonia
  • Convulsions (the body stiffens and muscles contract in a jerky and involuntary manner)
  • Otitis
  • Rib fractures
  • Hernias

Some complications are rarer:

  • Brain damage (1 in 11,000)
  • Death (4 in 1,000)

Complications are more serious and frequent in babies 1 year and younger. In some cases, hospitalisation is necessary.

People most at risk of complications

Babies younger than 1 year are at higher risk of having whooping cough complications. That’s why people in close contact with babies younger than 1 year are advised to get vaccinated.


Whooping cough spreads easily between members of the same household or between children attending the same daycare or school. The bacterium is spread through droplets from the nose and throat of those infected.

Protection and Prevention


Vaccination is the best way to be protected against whooping cough.

The whooping cough vaccine is a combined vaccine, meaning that it protects against several diseases at the same time. Components of the vaccine vary depending on the person’s age. According to the recommended immunisation schedule, children can receive the whooping cough vaccine from the age of 2 months.

Procedure for getting vaccinated

Under the Québec Immunisation Program, anyone can get vaccinated against whooping cough for free.

See the Québec Immunisation Program page to know the procedure for getting vaccinated.

People at Risk

Anyone not protected against whooping cough can catch it. Given that the immunisation program begins at 2 months old, children younger than that are most at risk of catching whooping cough.

Special Conditions

Whooping cough is a reportable disease in Québec.

When laboratory staff and health professionals detect a case of whooping cough, they must inform public health authorities.