What is a whooping cough test?

Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, is a bacterial infection that causes severe fits of coughing and trouble breathing. People with whooping cough sometimes make a “whooping” sound as they try to take a breath. Whooping cough is very contagious. It is spread from person to person by coughing or sneezing.

You can get whooping cough at any age, but it mostly affects children. It’s especially serious, and sometimes deadly, for babies less than a year old. A whooping cough test can help diagnose the disease. If your child gets a whooping cough diagnosis, he or she may be able to get treatment to prevent severe complications.

The best way to protect against whooping cough is with vaccination.

Other names: pertussis test, bordetella pertussis culture, PCR, antibodies (IgA, IgG, IgM)

What is the test used for?

A whooping cough test is used to find out whether you or your child has whooping cough. Getting diagnosed and treated in the early stages of infection may make your symptoms less severe and help prevent the spread of the disease.

Why do I need a whooping cough test?

Your health care provider may order a whooping cough test if you or your child has symptoms of whooping cough. You or your child may also need a test if you’ve been exposed to someone who has whooping cough.

Symptoms of whooping cough usually occur in three stages. In the first stage, symptoms are like those of a common cold and may include:

  • Runny nose
  • Watery eyes
  • Mild fever
  • Mild cough

It’s better to get tested in the first stage, when the infection is most treatable.

In the second stage, the symptoms are more serious and may include:

  • Severe coughing that’s hard to control
  • Trouble catching your breath when coughing, which may cause a “whooping” sound
  • Coughing so hard it causes vomiting

In the second stage, infants may not cough at all. But they may struggle to breathe or may even stop breathing at times.

In the third stage, you will start to feel better. You may still be coughing, but it will probably be less often and less severe.

What happens during a whooping cough test?

There are different ways to test for whooping cough. Your health care provider may choose one of the following ways to make a whooping cough diagnosis.

  • Nasal aspirate. Your health care provider will inject a saline solution into your nose, then remove the sample with gentle suction.
  • Swab test. Your health care provider will use a special swab to take a sample from your nose or throat.
  • A blood test. During a blood test, a health care professional will take a blood sample from a vein in your arm, using a small needle. After the needle is inserted, a small amount of blood will be collected into a test tube or vial. You may feel a little sting when the needle goes in or out. This usually takes less than five minutes. Blood tests are used more often in later stages of whooping cough.

In addition, your health care provider may order an x-ray to check for inflammation or fluid in the lungs.

Will I need to do anything to prepare for a whooping cough test?

You don’t need any special preparations for a whooping cough test.

Are there any risks to the tests?

There is very little risk to whooping cough tests.

  • The nasal aspirate may feel uncomfortable. These effects are temporary.
  • For a swab test, you may feel a gagging sensation or even a tickle when your throat or nose is swabbed.
  • For a blood test, you may have slight pain or bruising at the spot where the needle was put in, but most symptoms go away quickly.

What do the results mean?

A positive result probably means you or your child has whooping cough. A negative result doesn’t completely rule out whooping cough. If your results are negative, your health care provider will probably order more tests to confirm or rule out a whooping cough diagnosis.

Whooping cough is treated with antibiotics. Antibiotics can make your infection less serious if you start treatment before your cough gets really bad. Treatment may also help prevent you from spreading the disease to others.

If you have questions about your test results or treatment, talk to your health care provider.

Is there anything else I need to know about whooping cough tests?

The best way to protect against whooping cough is with vaccination. Before whooping cough vaccines became available in the 1940s, thousands of children in the United States died from the disease every year. Today, deaths from whooping cough are rare, but as many as 40,000 Americans get sick with it every year. Most cases of whooping cough affect babies too young to be vaccinated or teens and adults who are not vaccinated or up to date on their vaccines.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends vaccination for all babies and children, teens, pregnant women, and adults who have not been vaccinated or are not up to date on their vaccines. Check with your health care provider to see if you or child needs to be vaccinated.

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