Whooping Cough: Signs, Symptoms & Treatment

coughing, whooping cough, sick child, illness
Whooping cough, or pertussis, gets its name from the "whoop" sound that a person (typically a child) makes when he or she gasps for air after a coughing fit.
Credit: Ilike | Shutterstock

Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, is a bacterial infection of the respiratory tract that causes severe coughing. The disease is especially serious for babies.

Cases of whooping cough in the United States have been on the rise in recent years, and in 2012, the number of U.S. illnesses soared to more than 48,000 — more than any other year since 1955. In 2013, there was a decrease in cases.

Whooping cough is caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis. The microbes attach to tiny hairs in the respiratory tract called cilia, and release toxins that can cause swelling and damage cilia, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The disease is contagious, meaning it is spread from person to person. Transmission typically happens when a person with pertussis coughs or sneezes, and another person nearby breathes in the bacteria.

Whooping cough symptoms

At first, a person with whooping cough will typically have cold-like symptoms, such as a runny nose and low-grade fever. About one to two weeks later, infected individuals can experience severe and prolonged coughing, which is so extreme that it can even cause vomiting.

The disease gets its name from the "whoop" sound that a person (typically a child) makes when he or she gasps for air after a coughing fit. However, not everyone with whooping cough will make this sound — teens and adults typically don't.

The coughing fits can last a long time, up to 10 weeks or more.

Pertussis bacteria, whooping cough germ
This Gram-stained photomicrograph depicts numbers of Bordetella pertussis bacteria, which is the etiologic pathogen for pertussis, also known as whooping cough.
Credit: CDC.

Infants may not have a cough, but instead, have apnea, or pauses in breathing.

Whooping cough in infants

Whooping cough is most serious in infants — about 50 percent of babies less than a year old who are sick with whooping cough will need to be treated in a hospital, and 25 percent of hospitalized babies will develop a lung infection, according to the CDC.

Of the 159 people who died from whooping cough between 2004 and 2011, 141 (88 percent) were less than 3 months of age, the CDC says.

Young babies are particularly vulnerable to whooping cough because they cannot be vaccinated against the disease until they are 2 months old. However, there are still ways to protect infants from whooping cough, discussed in the "whooping cough vaccine" section below. Parents should also keep infants away from anyone with cold/cough symptoms, the CDC says.


Whooping cough vaccine

Pertussis is usually treated with antibiotics, the CDC says. The earlier treatment can begin, the better: if started early, antibiotics may make the condition less serve. But after three weeks, treatment is unlikely to be helpful

The recommended whooping cough vaccine for children is the DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis) vaccine. Children should receive a series of five vaccinations at ages 2, 4, 6 and 15 to 18 months, and 4 to 6 years, the CDC says.

Teens should get a whooping cough booster shot, called Tdap, when they are 11 or 12 years old.

Adults ages 19 and older should get a Tdap shot in place of one of their tetanus shots, which should be given every 10 years, the CDC says.

To protect infants before they are 2 months old, the CDC recommends that women get vaccinated against whooping cough during each pregnancy. It is thought that a pregnant women's antibodies are transferred to the fetus, which protects them once they are born. Family and friends who plan to have contact with very young infants should also get a Tdap booster before they visit the newborn, the CDC recommends.

In 1997, the United States introduced a newer version of the whooping cough vaccine, called the acellular pertussis vaccine. While this newer vaccine is thought cause fewer side effects than the old, the protection offered by the newer vaccine fades more quickly, within a few years, studies have shown. This waning immunity may be in part responsible for spikes in whooping cough cases among teens in recent years. Still experts remain unsure of whether another whooping cough booster shot should be added to the vaccination schedule.

However, if a vaccinated child does develop pertussis, their condition is usually less serve if they are up to date with their vaccinations.

Follow Rachael Rettner @RachaelRettner. Follow LiveScience @livescience, Facebook & Google+.

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Author Bio
Rachael Rettner, MyHealthNewsDaily Staff Writer

Rachael Rettner

Rachael has been with Live Science since 2010. She has a masters degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a Bachelor of Science in molecular biology and a Master of Science in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Follow Rachael on Twitter and Google+.
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