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Pertussis (Whooping Cough): When to Go to Emergency

Pertussis (also known as whooping cough) is a highly contagious 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.

Risk Factors

Babies younger than 6 months and preschool-age children are most at risk.
Canadian guidelines recommend that all children get four doses of the combined vaccine that includes pertussis protection – at age 2 months, 4 months, 6 months and 18 months.   Your child will get a booster vaccine at 4 to 6 years of age. An additional booster dose, combined with tetanus and diphtheria (Tdap) vaccine, is given routinely to adolescents between 14 to 16 years of age across Canada.

Schedules may vary from province to province. Calculate your child's personal immunization schedule.

When to Go to the Emergency Room (ER)

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 doctor 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 an instant.
  • Has a high fever or seizures.
  • Vomits often, or becomes dehydrated.

What to Expect in the ER

A doctor 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 also may 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.
How can Pertussis be prevented?
  The best way to protect against infection is to ensure that both you and your child are fully immunized. A child under six years needs five doses of the Pertussis vaccine, starting at two months of age, to be fully immunized. An additional booster dose, combined with tetanus and diphtheria (Tdap) vaccine, is given routinely to adolescents between 14 to 16 years of age across Canada.   It is recommended that adults not previously immunized against pertussis receive one dose of the Tdap vaccine. Consult your health care provider if you are unsure if you have been immunized against pertussis.   You should see your health care provider if anyone in your household has a cough that lasts longer than a week. It is important to get an accurate diagnosis, and to make sure infected individuals get treatment and avoid close contact with young children.   Proper hand washing may prevent the spread of pertussis, as well as other infectious diseases.