Whooping cough may sound like a disease from the past, but it is still active and potentially serious. At one time, whooping cough, which is also known as pertussis, was a leading cause of death for children in the United States.
The development of a vaccine significantly reduced the number of pertussis cases. However, teens and adults who received the vaccine as young children may lose their immunity.
Since the mid-1970s the number of reported pertussis cases has once again been on the rise. In 2010, 27,500 cases of pertussis were reported in the United States and many more cases were unreported.
Whooping cough is a serious respiratory infection caused by the bacteria Bordetella pertussis. These bacteria enter the body through the upper respiratory system which consists of the nose, nasal cavity, mouth, throat, and voice box.
The pertussis bacteria attach to cilia or tiny hairs that line the upper respiratory system where they release toxins that damage the cilia and cause swelling and thick mucus that can clog airways.
Pertussis causes uncontrollable coughing. Patients with pertussis may cough repeatedly until all the air is gone from their lungs. At this point, they are forced to take a huge gasp of air before coughing again.
The name whooping cough comes from the whooping sound that often accompanies the gasp for air. Some people with pertussis cough so hard that they vomit.
Anyone can get whooping cough. But the disease is most serious in very young children, who may have difficulty eating, drinking, or breathing because of the severe coughing.
The early symptoms of whooping cough are very similar to those of a cold, including:
• Runny nose or nasal congestion
• Red, watery eyes
• Mild fever
• Dry cough
After a week or two of sickness, whooping cough can progress to severe coughing attacks with significant side effects:
• Coughing up phlegm
• Vomiting caused by severe coughing
• Red or blue color on the face
• Extreme fatigue
• Whooping sound while inhaling after a coughing spell
Whooping cough is very contagious, which means it can easily spread from an infected person to others. Coughing or sneezing can throw tiny droplets of bacteria into the air onto other people or to surfaces others will touch.
Whooping cough can last up to six weeks. If caught early, antibiotics can get rid of symptoms more quickly. But most patients are not diagnosed until the disease has progressed to a point that antibiotics have limited effect.
Infants may temporarily stop breathing during coughing spells and should be constantly watched if they have pertussis. Some may need to be hospitalized for treatment.
Treatment after three weeks of the illness will probably not be effective because the bacteria will be gone by then, despite continuing symptoms.
Patients with pertussis are advised to drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration and to use a vaporizer to add humidity to the room which can help clear the lungs. Doctors also recommend getting plenty of rest and eating smaller meals to help prevent stomach upset during serious coughing bouts.
Over-the-counter cough remedies including expectorants and cough suppresents tend not to work with pertussis and should not be used.
Pertussis prevention includes avoiding people who have the disease, washing hands frequently to prevent infection, and getting vaccinated. Most children are vaccinated at a young age. By their teens, the vaccine may be wearing off. Booster shots are available for teens and for adults.
Mayo Clinic. Whooping Cough. Web. September 28, 2011.
About.com: Health Topics A-Z. Pertussis. Web. September 28, 2011.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pertussis (Whooping Cough). Web. September 28, 2011.
National Institutes of Health: Medline Plus. Whooping Cough. Web. September 28, 2011.
Centers for Disease Control: CDC Features. Pertussis (Whooping Cough) – What You Need To Know. Web. September 28, 2011.
National Institutes of Health: Medline Plus. Upper respiratory tract. Web. September 28, 2011.
Reviewed September 29, 2011
by Michele Blacksberg RN
Edited by Jody Smith