In-Depth with Whooping Cough
Whooping cough is on
the rise in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention, there were 19,000 cases reported in 2004, which is nearly double the
amount of cases reported in 2003.
What causes it?
Whooping cough gets
its name from the loud “whoop” noise people who have the disease make when they
cough. It’s caused by a bacterium called Bordetella pertussis. (This is
why whooping cough is also called “pertussis.”) When this bacterium gets inside
your airway, toxins are produced. These toxins don’t allow your respiratory
system to eliminate germs in the way that it normally would. Additionally, the
pertussis bacteria cause inflammation, which damages the lining of the breathing
How do you catch it?
Whooping cough is highly contagious. About 90 percent of
the people living in a household with someone who has whooping cough will
contract the disease if they don’t have sufficient immunity to it.
You catch whooping cough from inhaling the droplets from
the coughing and sneezing of someone who has the disease. It’s most contagious
early in the disease. At that point, you often don’t realize you have whooping
cough because it seems like a common cold. So it’s easy to unknowingly pass it
on to others you come in contact with.
How whooping cough progresses
Whooping cough usually starts with symptoms that would make
you think you have a cold:
- Runny nose
- Eye irritation
- Occasional cough
- Mild fever
After a week or two, the symptoms become more severe and
- Violent coughing, with a deep gasping in between coughs.
The gasp sounds like a “whoop.”
- Coughing that can trigger vomiting
The coughing can be so severe that it may cause your ribs
to break. Pneumonia, dehydration and seizures can also result. In fact,
pneumonia develops in about 30 to 40 percent of cases. It’s the most common
complication and the most common cause of death among people who contract
The whooping cough attacks occur most often at night, when
you’re trying to sleep. People who have whooping cough generally suffer from
lack of sleep and they often feel exhausted.
Unfortunately, whooping cough can last for about six to
eight weeks. The actual cough gets better, but it can linger for months.
How is it treated?
Doctors diagnose whooping cough by taking samples of the
mucous from your nose or throat. The presence of the pertussis bacterium
confirms the diagnosis. Your doctor may also want to do a blood test and take an
X-ray of your chest.
If you detect whooping cough in the first week, it’s
possible that an antibiotic, most likely erythromycin, may help decrease the
severity and shorten the length of time that you have the disease. After the
first week, erythromycin isn’t effective for many people, but it’s important to
follow the drug regimen your doctor has prescribed. Antibiotics play an
important role in helping to stop the spread of whooping cough to other members
of your household. It’s likely that your doctor will recommend that other
members of the household start on the antibiotic regimen. This could prevent
them from coming down with the disease. This is true for others who frequently
come in contact with someone who has whooping cough, such as day care staff and
Over-the-counter cough medicines, including cough
expectorants and suppressants (in syrup or drop form) typically provide little
to no relief to whooping cough sufferers. Guidelines from the American College
of Chest Physicians recommend that adults try older antihistamines that contain
Children who develop whooping cough often need to get
treatment in the hospital. Nearly all babies under six months old go to the
hospital if they develop the disease, and 40 percent of babies older than six
months are hospitalized. Often, these children develop pneumonia as a
complication. At the hospital, mucous may be suctioned from the airways.
Children may need oxygen to help them breathe. The breathing will be constantly
People who have whooping cough should make sure to drink
plenty of fluid because the vomiting that often results from the severe coughing
can cause you to become dehydrated.
Who’s most at risk?
- Children too young to be vaccinated
- People who haven’t completed the full vaccination
- People who have not had booster shots
How can you prevent whooping cough?
Whooping cough can be prevented if you receive the full
schedule of DTP immunizations. This stands for diphtheria, tetanus and
acellular pertussis. Children generally receive these shots in five doses before
their sixth birthday.
People often think of whooping cough as a childhood
disease, but it’s becoming more common in adolescents and adults. In fact,
adults currently comprise about 28 percent of whooping cough cases.
The whooping cough vaccine typically lasts only for about
five to 10 years. If you had your pertussis vaccine long ago, and you haven’t
had a booster shot since then, it’s likely that you’re no longer protected
against the disease. That’s why the American College of Chest Physicians
recently recommended that adults up to 65 years old get a new, adult vaccine for
of Health, National Library of Medicine