Whooping Cough

What Is Whooping Cough (Pertussis)?

Whooping cough or pertussis is a respiratory tract infection most commonly reported in younger children. Caused by the highly contagious bacterium Bordetella pertussis, whooping cough is marked by severe coughing fits, difficulty breathing, vomiting, and fatigue. The disease gets its name from a shrill “whooping” sound that patients make when breath returns after a coughing fit. Whooping cough was at one time a leading killer of Americans until the advent of an successful vaccination program. It remains a more limited threat today, primarily with infants that have yet to be vaccinated and with teenagers and adults whose immunity to the disease has faded with time.

Antibiotics have proven effective in treating persons presenting symptoms. If your child or another family member is showing signs of whooping cough, the respiratory specialists at Baptist Health are available to help.

What Are the Symptoms of Whooping Cough?

Symptoms for whooping cough develop in about a week to a week and a half after infection. Early symptoms are relatively mild, similar to those for the common cold. They include:

  • Fever
  • Runny nose
  • Watery eyes
  • Congestion
  • Diarrhea
  • Coughing.

Symptoms worsen after a couple of weeks. Advanced symptoms include:

  • Heavy coughing fits ending with a whoop
  • Labored breathing
  • Turning red- or blue-faced
  • Vomiting
  • Extreme fatigue.

Not everyone experiences the whooping sound. Rather than cough, infants have difficulty breathing.

Extreme coughing fits can result in other medical complications. These include broken blood vessels, cracked ribs, loss of bladder control, and hernias. Infants are at risk for dehydration, pneumonia, brain damage, and seizures.

What Causes Whooping Cough?

Whooping cough is a bacterial infection caused by the organism Bordetella pertussis. It affects the epithelial layers of the upper respiratory system making it difficult for the lungs to properly clear out dirt, mucous, and other particulate matter that collects there. This results in mucous buildup, compensatory coughing, and sometimes severe shortness of breath. B. pertussis is highly contagious, moving easily from one person to the next in droplets expelled by coughing.

The primary risk factor for whooping cough is age. Infants who have yet to be fully vaccinated and older children with a diminished immunity are the persons most likely to develop an infection.

How Is Whooping Cough Diagnosed?

To diagnose whooping cough, your physician will document symptoms and conduct a physical exam. The nature of the cough itself is often a clear indicator of the cause. To verify the diagnosis, your physician will likely also arrange for:

  • A nose or throat culture: A swab sample from the nasopharynx is evaluated for the presence of B. pertussis.
  • A blood test: A blood test will reveal an elevated white blood cell count, which is evidence that the body is fighting an infection.
  • A chest X-ray: A chest X-ray can bring to light any further complications, such as pulmonary inflammation or fluid in the lungs, which may point to the development of pneumonia in addition to whooping cough.

How Is Whooping Cough Treated?

Whooping cough is treated with antibiotics. If the patient’s symptoms are severe, hospitalization may be required. Intravenous fluids and respiratory support may be provided, as needed.

The best way to reduce the coughing is to heal the infection. Cough medicines have shown little ability to control whooping cough and, due to side effects, are not recommended for young children anyway.

With appropriate care, the outlook for whooping cough is positive. Symptoms may last a month or more, even with antibiotics. As with most medical conditions, the earlier treatment begins, the more quickly recovery will occur.

Can Whooping Cough be Prevented?

Whooping cough is preventable by means of vaccination. A pertussis vaccine is available, usually in combination with vaccines for diphtheria and tetanus. The CDC recommends that vaccination begin in infancy, with shots at ages:

  • Two months
  • Four months
  • Six months

Booster shots are available for children at ages:

  • 15 to 18 months
  • Four to six years
  • 11 years

Although whooping cough is primarily a young person’s disease, adults are susceptible. Booster shots are available for older individuals, and are recommended for pregnant women between 27 and 36 weeks of gestation. Vaccination side effects are typically mild.

Learn More About Whooping Cough from Baptist Health

If you’re dealing with a respiratory ailment or condition, see your Baptist Health physician. He or she will be able to assess your condition and determine which medical treatments, if any, are most appropriate for you.

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