The Woes of Whooping Cough
Everyone’s had a cough before, right? Coughs often come with a cold. And they usually go away without causing too much trouble. But sometimes the illnesses that cause coughs can make kids, especially little kids and babies, really sick.
Whooping cough (say: HOOP-ing kof) — also called pertussis (say: pur-TUS-is) — is one of those illnesses. It’s a bacterial infection of the respiratory system, which includes the lungs and breathing tubes in the lungs. Whooping cough got its name because kids who had it would cough a lot, and in between coughs they’d make a “whoop” sound when they tried to get a breath.
Thousands of kids used to get whooping cough, which can be a deadly illness. But in 1906, two French scientists discovered the pertussis bacteria. That was the first step to creating a vaccine, or shot, to prevent it.
Today, kids get a series of shots to protect them from getting whooping cough. Some kids still get the infection, but it’s less common than it once was. Babies who have had none or just some of the shots are particularly at risk for the illness and often have to be treated in a hospital if they get it.
How Is Whooping Cough Spread?
Pertussis bacteria can live in saliva in the mouth and mucus in the nose. Kids usually catch whooping cough by breathing in tiny droplets that are released into the air when someone who is infected coughs or sneezes. You can’t see them, but those drops are there.
A lot of colds are spread through tiny droplets in the air, too. It’s a good reason to cover your mouth and nose whenever you sneeze or cough.
What Are the Symptoms?
The first symptoms of whooping cough are like a cold — sneezing, runny nose, slight fever, and a cough that may get worse at night. But unlike a cold, whooping cough sticks around and within 2 weeks the cough gets stronger. The person has fits of coughing that seem to go on and on. During the cough, a person’s face can turn red and, if it’s really bad, the lips or skin may turn purple or blue. In between coughs, the person may make a “whoop” sound when taking a breath. The coughing can be so bad that the person throws up.
Most of the time, symptoms of whooping cough — especially the cough — can last for more than 2 months. But sometimes, kids are better within 3 to 6 weeks.
What’s the Treatment?
Your parent should call the doctor if you might have whooping cough or even if you’ve been near someone who had it, since it is pretty contagious.
If a doctor thinks a kid might have whooping cough, he or she might take a sample of mucus (snot) from the back of the kid’s nose. The snot can be tested in a lab to see if there’s any pertussis bacteria in it. The doctor also may order blood tests and a chest X-ray.
A kid who has whooping cough will need rest, plenty of fluids to drink, and healthy food. Someone with whooping cough will need to stay home from school and probably take antibiotics (medicines that fight infections from bacteria). These medicines can keep the pertussis bacteria from infecting others, because pertussis is really contagious.
Even if you don’t feel sick but you’ve been around someone who has whooping cough, your doctor will probably give you antibiotics. While getting better, people with whooping cough need to see a doctor to make sure their breathing and cough are improving.
In addition to getting better, parents need to make sure a kid with pertussis doesn’t spread it to other kids, especially babies who haven’t had their pertussis vaccination yet. Pertussis can be a very serious illness for a baby.
You can avoid whooping cough by getting the pertussis vaccine, called the DTaP, which is part of the normal vaccine schedule the doctor gives you. The shot prevents two other illnesses — diphtheria and tetanus — in addition to pertussis.
Today, kids are usually given five doses of the vaccine against whooping cough. The first three shots are given while a kid is a baby. Another is given when a kid is a toddler and the fifth one is given between ages 4 to 6. And now, doctors want to give another shot (called the Tdap) when a kid is older — like 11 or 12 — to make sure he or she is still protected.
Have you had your DTaPs? If so, whoop it up because you’re protected from whooping cough!
Reviewed by: Rupal Christine Gupta, MD
Date reviewed: March 2015