Whooping cough is a highly contagious disease caused by a type of bacteria known as Bordetella Pertussis, which infects the respiratory tract. It is characterized by long periods of extremely violent and uncontrollable coughing spells. Whooping cough spreads as one infected person coughs or sneezes releasing tiny droplets of saliva or music that contain the bacteria into the air. These tiny droplets can be inhaled by another person and lead to whooping cough. Outbreaks often occur within families or in school or day care.
Whooping cough is serious because it produces a thick, copious mucus that plugs little airways and compromises breathing. This excess mucus causes the characteristic cough and whoop. The child coughs to dislodge the mucus plug from his little airways. Coughing escalates into a fifteen-to thirty-second bout of increasingly forceful coughs, with each cough pushing the mucus higher so it can be coughed out or swallowed. At the end of the coughing spell, the child is so hungry for air that he quickly takes a catch-up breath, producing a whopping sound. Then the child rests and seems well for an hour or so. The mucus reaccumulates and the whooping cycles starts all over again. These episodes of violent coughs may last for six to twelve weeks. Other symptoms of whooping cough might include:
- low-grade fever
- runny nose
- vomiting after a severe coughing spell
- short-term loss of consciousness if the coughing spell is severe enough to cause a lack of oxygen to the brain
- in infants, blue appearance int he face following a severe coughing spell
Taking a swab inside the nose or in the back of the throat and sending it for culture can confirm infection with Bordetella Pertussis. It is not uncommon for a test to be negative when in fact a child is infected. If the doctor strongly suspects whooping cough, he may not test for it. Other blood tests and/or a chest X-ray may be performed if he believes they are necessary.
What the doctor might prescribe. Whooping cough is difficult to treat, which is why we stress prevention through immunization. Because whooping cough is caused by bacteria, antibiotics are usually prescribed. However, antibiotics are more effective when used early in the course of illness. The later antibiotics are started, the less effective they will be. the doctor will usually prescribe an antibiotic even if your child has suffered from whooping cough for several weeks. This is done to possibly shorten the duration of the illness, make your child less contagious, and prevent a secondary infection. If a family member is diagnosed with whooping cough, the doctor may recommend that the entire family be treated with antibiotics.
Whooping cough is most dangerous for infants and the elderly, but it is rarely fatal. Infants with whooping cough under six months old may need to be hospitalized for close supervision and respiratory support. Over-the-counter cough medications and cough suppressants are generally not very effective in helping the symptoms of whooping cough. these types of medications should not be used for children under four years of age and without a doctor’s advice.
What you can do at home. In addition to antibiotics, home treatment is aimed at thinning the mucus so your child can more easily cough it up.
- Steam it.
- Water it. Hydrate your child well to thin the mucus
- Clap it. Called chesty physiotherapy, your pediatrician will show you how to clap on your child’s back to help dislodge the mucus plugs.
- Rest it. Be sure your child rests after a coughing fit. He needs to recharge for the next one.
- Don’t always suppress is. Your child’s cough is his best “internal medicine” for dislodging mucus plus, which is why we advice parents to hold cough suppressants during the day. Suppressants can be used at night if your child is unable to sleep because of the cough, but talk to your doctor first. He may recommend an expectorant or cough loosener instead of a cough suppressant.