Medically known as “pertussis,” whooping cough is an infection of the respiratory system. Whooping cough causes violent coughing spells resulting in a loss of breath marked by a deep “whooping” sound upon inhaling. Before a vaccine was developed, this bacterial disease killed between 5,000 and 10,000 people annually. Unfortunately, whooping cough is currently resurging as a serious risk to infants, babies, and older children with diminished immunity.
It is easy to mistake whooping cough for the common cold. Many of the first symptoms are identical, including a runny nose, sneezing, a mild cough, and low fever. After a week, mild coughs develop into more serious fits that may last for over a minute.
Children, in particular, are prone to turning red, purple, or blue from coughing fits and develop characteristic whooping sounds. Infants do not necessarily exhibit the whooping noise or a cough; instead, they may appear to gasp for air, turn red, and stop breathing for seconds at a time. Whooping cough causes many side effects in infants such as:
- Ear infections
- Brain damage
It is important to seek medical care if prolonged coughing results in vomiting, discoloration of the skin, and the distinctive whooping sound. Listening to the cough may be enough to confirm a diagnosis, but doctors may administer other tests like a nose or throat culture, a blood test, or an x-ray to look for inflammation or signs of pneumonia.
Complications of whooping cough can be fatal in infants and may require hospitalization. When necessary, children are treated in isolation, given intravenous fluids, and prescribed antibiotics. Cough medicines will not prevent or suppress coughing spells.
Whooping cough is highly contagious, and the bacteria responsible for infection is spread through fluid that can become airborne, transferred by touching droplets to the mouth, or inhaled through the nose. People are most contagious within the first two weeks of developing a cough.
The most efficient way to prevent whooping cough in children is through vaccination. Immunizations are given routinely before a child’s sixth birthday with boosters between ages 11 and 12. A series of five injections are administered to children at ages 2 months, 4 months, 6 months, 15-18 months, and 4 to 6 years. Vaccinations are recommended for individuals in close contact with infants, and for pregnant women during the third trimester of pregnancy.
For more information about whooping cough, contact your pediatrician.