Whooping Cough

Whooping cough is caused by a bacteria called Bordetella pertussis that infects the lungs and airways. Whooping cough is very contagious and is passed on to others by coughing and sneezing. People are infectious from about a week before they start coughing and for about a further three weeks after the cough starts. The initial symptoms are very similar to a cold – runny nose and eyes, mild fever and cough but then progresses to coughing bouts that can last a few minutes and that are worse at night. The name ‘whooping cough’ comes from the whoop sound that is made as a person gasps for breath between coughs. Young babies and adults may not make the ‘whoop’ sound, instead babies can have long periods where they don’t take a breath. When infected with whooping cough, the lungs and airways make a thick mucus which can often cause vomiting.

Whooping cough used to be considered a common childhood disease until a vaccine was made to prevent the illness. These days it mainly affects babies who haven’t been fully vaccinated against it, or teenagers and adults whose immunity has waned. New Zealand tends to have epidemics of this disease every three to five years. It takes a series of vaccinations to develop immunity to this bacteria. In New Zealand, the pertussis vaccine is included in the childhood vaccination schedule. Children receive three doses of the Pertussis vaccine (a combination vaccine) at the ages of six weeks, 3 months and five months, with booster shots required at the ages of 4 and 11 years old. Pregnant women in their second and third trimester are also recommended to have the vaccine to protect their unborn baby. Around half of babies under the age of one year who get whooping cough are hospitalised and about 1% of these babies die from the disease. There are two ways to protect our babies from whooping cough and that is to vaccinate pregnant women against the disease and also by ‘cocooning’. Cocooning is what happens when everyone around the baby (grandparents, siblings, babysitters etc) has been vaccinated against whooping cough so this gives the baby a layer of protection from the disease until they are fully up-to-date with all their vaccinations.

In teenagers and adults whooping cough is usually manageable. The worst side effects are sleep deprivation from having coughing fits throughout the night, as well as side effects caused by the strenuous coughing – bruised or cracked ribs, nosebleeds, abdominal hernia or broken blood vessels in the skin or whites of the eyes. People may
cough so hard that they vomit or get very tired from all the effort. Unfortunately the cough can linger for weeks or months and that is the reason for it’s other name, the 100-day cough.

In very young children, in particular infants under the age of six months, complications from whooping cough can be very severe. Pneumonia, slowed or stopped breathing, seizures, dehydration and weight loss and even brain damage can all be life threatening in babies.

Treatment depends on the age of the patient and severity of the disease. Generally babies under the age of six months are best treated in hospital. For less severe infections, rest, plenty of fluids and paracetamol or ibuprofen can help with any discomfort. Cough medicines are best not used as they are unlikely to work. Encourage children to eat small meals every few hours to help prevent vomiting. Antibiotics are given if a person has had the illness for less than three weeks. While it may not stop or lessen the symptoms, antibiotics will stop a person from being infectious and passing the disease on to others.

This blog provides general information and discussion about medicine, health and related subjects. The information contained in the blog and in any linked mate­ri­als, are not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice.

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