Whooping cough, also called
pertussis, is a serious respiratory infection caused by a type of bacteria
called Bordetella pertussis.
The infection causes violent, uncontrollable coughing that can make it
difficult to breathe. While whooping cough can affect people at any age, it can
be deadly for infants and young children.
Before a vaccine was available,
whooping cough caused approximately 9,000 deaths per year in the United States,
according to KidsHealth. Whooping cough is now responsible for fewer than 30 deaths each
year in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
(CDC). The CDC
says the total number of cases of pertussis in 2014 was just under 33,000.
The incubation period (time
between initial infection and the onset of symptoms) for whooping cough is about
five to 10 days, but symptoms might not appear for as long as three weeks,
according to the CDC.
Early symptoms mimic the common cold and include a runny nose, cough, and
fever. Within two weeks, a dry and persistent cough develops that makes
breathing very difficult. Infants and children often make a “whoop” sound when
they try to take a breath after coughing spells.
This type of severe cough can
- blue or
purple skin around the mouth
Adults and teenagers typically
experience milder symptoms, such as a prolonged cough without the “whoop”
and Treating Whooping Cough
If you or your child experience
symptoms of whooping cough, seek medical attention right away, especially if
members of your family have not been immunized. Whooping cough is highly
contagious — bacteria can become airborne when an infected person coughs,
sneezes, or laughs, and can quickly spread to others.
To diagnose whooping cough, your
doctor will perform a physical exam and take samples of mucus in the nose and
throat. These samples will then be tested for the presence of the B. pertussis bacteria. A blood
test may also be necessary to make an accurate diagnosis.
Many infants and some young
children will need to be hospitalized during treatment, for observation and
respiratory support. Some may require intravenous (IV) fluids for dehydration
if symptoms prevent them from drinking enough fluids. Since whooping cough is a
bacterial infection, antibiotics are the primary course of treatment.
Antibiotics are most effective in the early stages of whooping cough; however,
they can also be used in the late stages of the infection to prevent it from
spreading to others. While antibiotics can help treat the infection, they do
not prevent or treat the cough itself. Cough medicines are not recommended — they
have no effect on whooping cough symptoms and may carry harmful side effects
for infants and small children.
Most doctors suggest using humidifiers
in your child’s bedroom to keep air moist and help alleviate symptoms of
Infants with whooping cough
require close monitoring to avoid potentially dangerous complications due to
lack of oxygen. Serious complications include:
- brain damage
- bleeding in
(slowed or stopped breathing)
(uncontrollable, rapid shaking)
If your infant experiences
symptoms of infection, call your doctor immediately.
Older children and adults can
experience complications as well, including:
- difficulty sleeping
- urinary incontinence (loss of bladder
- rib fracture
Symptoms of whooping cough can
last up to four weeks or longer, even during treatment. Children and adults
generally recover quickly with early medical intervention. Infants are at the
highest risk of whooping cough-related deaths, even after starting treatment.
Parents should monitor infants carefully. If symptoms persist or get worse,
contact your doctor right away.
Vaccination is the key to
prevention. The CDC
recommends vaccination for infants at:
Booster shots are needed for
- 15 to 18
- 4 to 6 years
and again at 11 years old
Children aren’t the only ones
vulnerable to whooping cough. If you work with, visit, or care for infants and
children, are over the age of 65, or work in the healthcare industry, talk to
your doctor about getting vaccinated.