Caring for your Child with Pertussis

Updated December 29th, 2023

What is Pertussis (Whooping Cough)?

Pertussis is an illness that is caused by bacteria (germs) that gets into your child’s nose, throat and lungs.

Pertussis is very serious because:

  • it causes long coughing spells that makes it hard for infants and children to eat, drink, or even breathe.
  • it can lead to pneumonia, brain damage, seizures and death, especially in infants.
    • about 1 in 100 infants with pertussis dies because of pneumonia or brain damage
  • a child can be sick with pertussis for 2 to 3 months

What are the symptoms of pertussis?

Symptoms may begin to appear 5 to 10 days after infection:

  • Pertussis usually starts like a cold with a runny nose, red watery eyes, mild fever and cough.
  • After a few days the “whooping cough” begins.

Your child may cough so much that he:

  • throws up
  • has trouble breathing and
  • becomes exhausted

Check out the video below to hear what whooping cough sounds like.

Note: Other videos may be recommended by the host channel (e.g. YouTube, Vimeo).  These suggestions may be based on your personal search history and other factors. The WRHA does not control these suggestions and is not responsible for and may not endorse the content.

How do you get Pertussis?

Pertussis is very contagious. It is easily spread from one person to another when the germ gets into the mouth, nose or eyes. This can happen when:

  • Coughing, sneezing, or spending a lot of time with someone with pertussis

Anyone who has not been vaccinated against pertussis can become ill with whooping cough.

Who should be immunized?

Young babies who are too young for their first immunization can be protected if everyone around them is up to date with their immunizations:

Hot parent tip:
  • If your child is exposed to pertussis and is not vaccinated or up to date, get her vaccinated right away.
    • If your child gets pertussis the vaccine may reduce the severity.

What should I do if I think my child has Pertussis?

If you suspect your child has pertussis, take them to: 

How is Pertussis diagnosed?

To diagnose Pertussis, your health care provider will take a swab of your child’s nose and test it.

How is Pertussis treated?

  • Your health care provider will decide if antibiotics are needed:
    • Prescribed antibiotics will work only if given before the start of the severe cough.
    • Sometimes antibiotics may be prescribed after the start of the severe cough to reduce the spread of the germs.
  • If antibiotics are prescribed, your child should take all the medication, even if she seems better.

Tips for comforting your child:

  • Keep your child hydrated by offering plenty of fluids or breastfeed on cue.
  • Let your child rest
  • Offer honey if over 1 years old and doesn’t have an allergy.
  • If your child has a fever, dress your child in light clothing and remove any extra blankets.
  • Acetaminophen (Tylenol®, Tempra®) or ibuprofen (Advil®, Motrin®) are the medicines that can be used to reduce your child’s aches and pains from the fever and illness.
    • How much you give is based on your child’s age and weight.
    • Follow the medicine’s directions for how much and how often you can give the medicine to your child.
    • Do not give any medication if your child is allergic to it.
Safety Tips:

To avoid giving your child too much medication:

  • Use only the measuring syringe or cup that comes with the medicine. Kitchen spoons are not all the same and can cause overdosing.
  • Make a note of the time and amount you gave. Tip- your calendar or phone works great for this.
  • Write clear instructions for other caregivers about your child’s medicine. (What medicine, how much and when).

To keep your kids safe:

Choose the right medication for your child:

  • Do not give Acetylsalicylic Acid (ASA, Aspirin®) to children because it can cause a rare and dangerous disease called Reye’s Syndrome.
  • Do not give ibuprofen (Advil®, Motrin®) if your child is dehydrated, vomiting or has diarrhea because it can harm the kidneys.
  • Do not give over the counter cough and cold medicines to children less than 6 years old.
  • Check with your pharmacist if your child is taking two or more medications to make sure its safe.

Call your local pharmacist or Health Links-Info Santé (Winnipeg 204-788-8200, toll-free 1-888-315-9257) for information. 

Do I need to keep my child home?

  • If your child has pertussis, your child is contagious. They need to have antibiotics for 5 days before they can attend daycare or school.
  • After being treated for 5 days only send them if they are feeling well enough to attend.

How to prevent the spread of pertussis

When to seek emergency care

Call 911 or your local emergency number if:
  • your child is having severe difficulty breathing or is turning blue
  • your child is having a seizure
  • you cannot wake up your child
Go to the emergency department if:
  • coughing so hard and so long that your child cannot breathe or stops breathing
  • has had a seizure today (child passes out and is stiff or has jerking movements)
  • has difficulty breathing or is wheezing


Pertussis, Caring for Kids
Whooping Cough, Healthy Children
Pertussis Whooping Cough, Centre for Disease Control and Prevention