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Whooping Cough

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One of the most contagious bacterial disease is whooping cough. It is also called as pertussis and in some places it is called as the 100 days’ cough. The following article will discuss some of the details regarding whooping cough and shed some light on related facts.

What is Whooping Cough?

The bacterial infection of the nose, throat and lungs in children that leads to a severe and long bursts of coughing phase is called as whooping cough. The coughing spell lasts for a long time and can occur every hour, even after the child falls asleep. The cough ends with a whooping sound, thus, it is called as whooping cough.

There is the formation of a thick mucus in the lungs that leads to coughing spells. This cough was first described in the 16th century. It is said to kill about 250,000 children around the world, every year. About 83% infants under the age of 3 years die due to pertussis. This is because the child may not be able to breath and feed properly due to the long bouts of cough. Pertussis can also lead to pneumonia and brain damage.

What Causes Whooping Cough?

The contagious disease whooping cough spreads by coughing or sneezing. The bacteria called Bordetella pertussis causes this respiratory disease. Many people are unaware that they are infected with whooping cough. This is because the symptoms appear about 7 to 10 days after exposure to the bacteria. Thus, they unwittingly spread the infection to other children.

Who is At Risk of Getting Whooping Cough?

Any person who is not vaccinated against whooping cough is at risk of developing an infection. However, babies, infants and children are at more risk.

Signs and Symptoms of Whooping Cough

Whooping cough is recognized by the characteristic whooping sound heard between the coughing bouts. The sound comes due to the gasp of breath the child takes in between a coughing spasm. This sound is heard as the characteristic whoop. This sound may not be heard in a few cases. The cough appears similar to the cough due to cold infection.

The upper respiratory tract is affected by the infection. This causes the lining of the air passages to become inflamed. Soon, excessive mucus is produced leading to irritation of the respiratory tract and the bouts of severe cough. Signs of whooping cough appear in stages as follows:

Initial Stage

This stage lasts for about 1 to 2 weeks.The symptoms are quite similar to the common cold and include:

  • Fever
  • Watery, runny nose
  • Watery eyes
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite
  • Sneezing
  • Cough, especially at nights

Second Stage

This stage lasts for about 1 to 6 weeks. In some cases, it can go as long as 10 weeks.

  • Severe coughing spells
  • Whooping sound after a coughing spell
  • Severe mucus production lead to severe coughing accompanied by vomiting spell or child turning blue by choking on mucous

Triggers for severe coughing spells at this stage may include crying, overactivity, feeding and even smoke.

Third Stage

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The third stage may last for many months. The symptoms include recurrent respiratory infections and coughing spasms.


Many children and adults with whooping cough recover without any complications. Some may however suffer from a bruised rib, abdominal hernia or broken blood vessels present in the white of the eyes. Infants under 6 months of age may suffer from serious complications such as pneumonia, ear infection, dehydration, seizures, brain damage as well as breathing problems.

Diagnosis of Whooping Cough

Diagnosis in the early stages is quite difficult as the symptoms are similar to a common cold. At times, after listening to the cough, the doctor can diagnose whooping cough. Tests that help confirm pertussis include:

  • Nose or throat swab to detect whooping cough bacteria
  • Chest X-ray to detect presence of fluid or inflammation in lungs that indicates pneumonia

Treatment of Whooping Cough

Infants are immediately hospitalized as the condition can turn fatal. Treatment includes isolation to prevent spread of infection, intravenous fluids- in case the child cannot feed due to the constant coughing and vomiting. Antibiotics like erythromycin or azithromycin are given to kill the bacteria.

Prognosisof Whooping Cough

Healthy children or adults recover completely from pertussis without any complications. However, the infection is quite severe in infants who can suffer from pneumonia, encephalopathy, failure to thrive as well as death.

Prevention of Whooping Cough

Vaccination is the only way to prevent whooping cough. This efficient method is recommended by the WHO. Pertussis vaccinations can be given at the age of 2, 3, 4 months. Booster doses can be given at the age of 3 years 4 months. The last pertussis vaccine booster can be given at the age of 11 to 12 years. In case of adults, the vaccine is given in combination with a tetanus and diphtheria vaccine and called as ‘Tdap’ vaccine.

It may not sound serious, but whooping cough is a severe infection that can turn fatal. Make sure one receives medical treatment promptly to prevent any complications. Every child should be vaccinated against pertussis to prevent the infection from disturbing their normal lives.

Written by: Saptakee sengupta
Date last updated: March 15, 2015

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