Baby Health: Whooping Cough

Whooping cough disease, also known as pertussis, is a highly contagious respiratory tract infection, which manifests itself in the form of a mild disease in adults, but can be deadly in young babies. In the United States, whooping cough was a leading cause of childhood death and illness in the early twentieth century. Since the development of infant vaccinations against whooping cough in the 1940s, the number of infections in babies steadily declined. However, recent studies have shown that the incidence of whooping cough and baby infection has been rising since 1980, and that babies often contract the disease from household members, especially parents.

What is Whooping Cough?

Whooping cough disease is caused by the bordetella pertussis bacterium and is transmitted, like the common cold, through contact with respiratory droplets secreted through coughs and sneezes.

Whooping cough affects the upper respiratory tract, meaning that it is the windpipe (trachea) and the air tubes branching from the windpipe (bronchi) that mostly affected.

Whooping Cough Symptoms

Once infected, the whooping cough bacteria multiply and produce toxins in the respiratory tract that result in a thick mucus, leading to uncontrollable coughing. The bacteria also causes inflammation in the lungs resulting in a narrowing of the breathing tubes, causing individuals to gasp for air.

Signs and whooping cough symptoms will typically appear between a few days to several weeks after the initial infection. Common early symptoms of whooping cough include the following:

  • runny nose and sneezing
  • nasal congestion
  • red, watery eyes
  • slight fever
  • loss of appetite

These symptoms of whooping cough can gradually lead to the following:

  • severe coughing attacks of up to 15 coughs in a row
  • coughing attacks that produce thick phlegm
  • coughing attacks that end in a characteristic "whoop" sound as the individual gasps for air
  • fatigue due to coughing

In babies, symptoms of whooping cough are magnified and include bouts of violent coughing which can cause the child to turn blue or red as they gasp for air. Children and infants may also vomit from the strain of coughing. Small, red spots may appear along the skin due to ruptured blood cells, and small areas of bleeding may appear in the whites of the eye.

Whooping Cough Complications

In infants and children under the age of two, complications associated with whooping cough can include the following:

  • ear infections
  • pneumonia
  • slowed breathing
  • stopped brathing
  • dehydration
  • seizures
  • brain damage

These risks make early immunization to prevent whooping cough critical, since infected infants often require hospital treatment and whooping cough complications can be life-threatening in infants under six months of age.

Childhood Immunizations

A recent study found a rise in the incidence of whooping cough, particularly among infants too young to undergo the complete course of vaccinations and in teenagers whose immunity has faded.

Currently, a whooping cough vaccine is administered in the form of a DtaP vaccination during infancy. The complete vaccine is given in parts. Three parts of the vaccine, administered at the ages of two months, four months, and six months, are required to fully protect a child against whooping cough. However, it is recommended that children receive two more doses of the whooping cough vaccine at the ages of twelve to eighteen months, and between the ages of four and six years.

Following a recent study, the panel that advises the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention now recommends that the whooping cough vaccine also be administered to adolescents between the ages of ten and eighteen, and in adults up to the age of sixty-four. This is especially important in preventing transmission of whooping cough to babies from adults who show no symptoms of the disease.

Treatment of Whooping Cough

Treatment of infants infected with whooping cough typically involves hospitalization to prevent the risk of complications in babies. Your child may receive intravenous antibiotics to treat infection or reduce lung inflammation. The child's airway may be suctioned to remove excess mucus, and sedatives may be prescribed to allow your child to rest while breathing is carefully monitored.

In adults, prescription antibiotics along with bed rest will typically be recommended.