Whooping cough, along with other viruses such as respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and influenza, is among the many causes of respiratory illnesses which so commonly afflict children during the winter months. This blog provides an update on pertussis, commonly referred to as whooping cough, a serious illness with an increasing prevalence.
What is whooping cough?
Whooping cough is a very contagious respiratory illness caused by a bacteria with a scientific name (Bordetella) which means “intense cough.” It is also called the “100 day cough,” since it can take more than 3 months for this cough to finally resolve.
Who can get whooping cough?
Anyone can contract whooping cough, although infants and young children have the highest morbidity. Death is unfortunately a real possibility, so this is a disease to take seriously. Often, the only manifestation in an adolescent or adult is a prolonged but milder cough and some people might not even suspect they have whooping cough.
What are the symptoms?
Initially, whooping cough may look like a typical cold. However, a cold usually resolves in about 2 weeks, while the cough associated with whooping cough worsens with time instead of getting better.
The cough generally progresses to the point that the affected person “whoops” between coughing fits. However, not all people with the disease will experience this “whoop.” The cough may lead to vomiting. This stage can last up to 8 weeks before it starts to improve. Don’t forget the affected person is still susceptible to other respiratory infections at the same time – which can be more intense due to the damage caused by the whooping cough bacteria. A fever is uncommon.
Are there complications?
Whooping cough is a serious illness with serious complications, especially in infants. It can cause pneumonia, apnea (the baby stops breathing), seizures and even death.
How is whooping cough diagnosed?
In addition to a high level of suspicion, 3 different laboratory methods can be used to diagnose whooping cough. These tests involve obtaining a specimen from the nasopharynx or blood, depending upon how long signs of the illness have been present.
What is the treatment for whooping cough?
Antibiotics are used, but are most effective if started earlier in the illness. Antibiotic treatment is not likely to have a major impact on the course of the disease because most of the damage to the respiratory tract is done before diagnosis and treatment. The antibiotic may have a beneficial effect, however, by decreasing the chance of infecting others who have been near the person with whooping cough. Sometimes close contacts of an infected person receive preventive antibiotics; this should be discussed with your doctor.
Can whooping cough be prevented?
Prevention is always the best approach. Vaccines are the most effective method of prevention. Infants and children should receive their vaccines against pertussis and other illnesses according to the schedule outlined by the CDC, American Academy of Pediatrics and other authorities with advanced expertise in this area. These vaccines are safe and failure to give them to your child in a timely fashion exposes them to unnecessary risks of serious, potentially life-threatening, illnesses such as pertussis.
Also, pregnant women should receive a Tdap vaccine during each pregnancy (preferably 27 to 36 weeks of gestation) to decrease the newborn’s chance of contracting pertussis. All others older than 11 should have one Tdap, especially if exposure to a new baby is expected. Many times this will be the spouse of the pregnant mother or the parent/relatives of the newborn baby in the household.
Seeing a baby suffer from this disease is not only disheartening, but can be outright frightening. Get your little ones vaccinated on time and decrease their risk of contracting this terrible disease!