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Whooping Cough is Back: What are the Symptoms, Who is at Risk, How to Avoid It

Whooping cough, or pertussis, is a serious bacterial infection of the lining of the breathing passages. The characteristic symptom is a prolonged coughing spasm that leads to a labored inhalation, which causes a high-pitched whooping sound.

whopping cough

Early symptoms of whooping cough resemble those of the common cold, but after a week or two the symptoms become more severe.

Prior to the 1940s, whooping cough was responsible for over a quarter of a million serious illnesses and about 10,000 deaths per year. However, a vaccination campaign was introduced and the illness declined to a low of just 1,010 reported cases in 1976.

Since then, whooping cough appears to be making a comeback. In 2004, there were more than 25,000 cases, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, but experts say the number could be as high as 600,000 cases, as early symptoms of whooping cough are often mistaken for other illnesses.

Whooping Cough Signs and Symptoms

Whooping cough is caused by bacteria called Bordetella pertussis, and is very contagious. Typically, it's spread by breathing in infected respiratory droplets from an infected person's coughs or sneezes. Symptoms may show up within three to 12 days of exposure.

The early symptoms, which can last up to two weeks, are easy to miss, as they're generally mild and resemble those of the common cold:

  • Runny nose, sneezing, nasal congestion

  • Red, watery eyes

  • Dry cough

  • Mild fever

  • General malaise and loss of appetite

The later symptoms become more severe, and in adults can resemble the symptoms of bronchitis:

  • Coughing attacks that end with a high-pitched whooping sound upon inhalation, and bring up thick phlegm

  • Coughing attacks can be severe enough to cause vomiting, bulging eyes, face discoloration and the tongue to protrude

  • Inflammation that narrows breathing tubes in your lungs, causing you to gasp for air

  • Fatigue due to coughing spasms

Who's at Risk of Whooping Cough?

whopping cough

Health care officials recommend infants receive the DtaP vaccine (pertussis, diphtheria and tetanus) to prevent whooping cough. There have been reports of brain damage after the vaccine, however, and research into a potential link is ongoing.

The whooping cough vaccine wears off after childhood, leaving teenagers and adults susceptible to the illness if an outbreak occurs. Also, children don't become immune until they've received at least three shots of the vaccine, which means infants 6 months and younger are at risk.

Children under 1 year have the most severe symptoms from whooping cough, while teens and adults usually contract milder cases. Likewise, while adults and teens usually recover from whooping cough without any complications, children, and especially those under 2, can experience severe, life-threatening complications, including:

  • Injury to chest wall muscles or hernia (from severe coughing)

  • Ear infections

  • Pneumonia and slowed or stopped breathing

  • Dehydration

  • Seizures and brain damage

How to Avoid Whooping Cough

Health care official recommend the pertussis vaccine for infants and children, as well as booster vaccines for teens and adults, to prevent contracting the illness.

There is some concern that the pertussis vaccine may cause neurologic damage, as some children have developed brain damage after receiving the immunizations. Research into this issue is being conducted, and children with seizures or brain disorders are sometimes advised not to receive the DtaP vaccine (the pertussis vaccine is usually given as a three-in-one vaccine, along with diphtheria and tetanus).

If you suspect you or your child has whooping cough, you should seek medical attention. Although they cannot cure whooping cough, antibiotics are sometimes given to shorten the duration of symptoms. For babies under 2 months, hospitalization is often required. Meanwhile, if you are being treated for whooping cough at home, these simple tips can help:

  • Get lots of rest.

  • Drink a lot of fluids, such as water and soup broths.

  • Eat smaller meals more frequently (instead of fewer, larger meals) to avoid vomiting after coughing.

  • Use a mist vaporizer in your room, or take a hot shower or bath, to help soothe the lungs and loosen phlegm.

  • Keep the air in your home clean by not smoking and consider the use of an air purifier.

Recommended Reading

Chronic Sinusitis: What it is, What the Symptoms Are, Common Treatments, Potential Cures

You are Burying Your Face in a Hot Zone for Fungal Spores Every Night: Your Pillow


MedLine Plus: Whooping Cough

Medem Medical Library

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