Whooping Cough

Overview

Whooping cough, or pertussis, is a very contagious respiratory infection caused by Bordetella pertussis bacteria. The trademark symptom of whooping cough is a hacking cough followed by a high-pitched breath (whooping sound). Although whooping cough was once a common childhood disease, the development of a vaccine has dramatically reduced the number of cases. Now, infants who are not yet old enough to get the vaccine are most at risk. Vaccination is the best way to prevent whooping cough; it is especially important for pregnant women and others who will be around an unvaccinated baby.

Symptoms and Diagnosis

Whooping cough often starts with symptoms similar to those of a cold, including a runny nose, sneezing, mild cough, and a low fever. After 1 to 2 weeks, an uncontrollable, hacking cough develops. This cough can be so severe that it causes vomiting, skin turning red or blue, and extreme tiredness, and it can end with a high-pitched noise (whoop). Not everyone with whooping cough will develop the whoop, and adults and teens usually only have mild symptoms. Serious cases of whooping cough can result in bruised or cracked ribs, abdominal hernias, and broken blood vessels in the skin or whites of the eyes. Infants under 6 months of age can develop life-threatening problems such as ear infections, pneumonia, difficulty breathing, dehydration, seizures, and brain damage.

Whooping cough is often difficult to diagnose before the symptoms become severe because they are so similar to those of a cold, flu, or bronchitis. A diagnosis can sometimes be made simply based on symptoms and the cough. A doctor may do a throat or nose culture to check for bacteria. Blood tests may also be done to check white blood cell counts, which can indicate the presence of an infection or inflammation. Chest X-rays can help detect fluid in the lung caused by pneumonia, a complication of whooping cough.

Causes

Whooping cough is caused by an infection with the bacterium Bordetella pertussis. People can catch whooping cough by breathing in droplets from an infected person’s cough or sneeze. Even when someone is vaccinated as a child, the effects of the vaccine can wear off over time. As a result, many teens and adults are susceptible to infection, although it is not typically dangerous for them. However, whooping cough is highly contagious. When a teen or adult with whooping cough comes in contact with an unvaccinated baby, the infant can get sick. Children are also not fully immune to the disease until they receive all three shots of the vaccine series, which means that infants under 6 months of age are at risk. Continue reading for Prevention and Treatment Information . . .

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