The disease gets its name from the characteristic whooping sound that is made when an infant affected by the infection breathes in after a bout of cough. Whooping cough claimed a large number of lives before a vaccine for it was invented. The vaccine has reduced the number of deaths in the United States from 5,000-10,000 to less than 30 per year. The following article provides information about the various symptoms, prevention methods, and complications of this condition.
Whooping cough is an infection of the respiratory tract that is caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis. Hence, it is also known as pertussis. This is an infectious disease that spreads through water droplets present in the air from coughing and sneezing. Although it may affect adults, it is very common in infants. However, with the discovery of the vaccine, the cases of this cough in infants have decreased significantly. Nevertheless, it may become serious and fatal in some cases.
Symptoms of whooping cough start as those of common cold. Sneezing, runny nose, mild fever, and coughing are some of the common symptoms that appear during the first two weeks of the infection. However, as the infection becomes severe, a baby has bouts of cough that bring up phlegm. These attacks are more frequent during the night. At the end of these bursts of cough, when the infant breathes in, the characteristic ‘whoop’ sound is heard. Hence, the name whooping cough. During such attacks an infant may turn blue due to lack of oxygen. These episodes may be accompanied with vomiting. Apart from this, signs of exhaustion are evident in the infant. This stage usually lasts for 6 weeks. However, in some cases, it may extend up to 10 weeks.
Whooping cough can be prevented by administration of vaccine. Also known as the pertussis vaccine, the whooping cough vaccine is a part of the DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus, acellular pertussis) vaccination, that are given in five doses before the child becomes six years old. It is also advised that, children between 11 to 12 years be given the booster shot of the new combination vaccine, Tdap, to provide additional protection in case immunity from the initial whooping cough vaccine fails. Some common side effects of the DTaP vaccine are fever, redness or swelling of the area where the vaccine was given, fatigue, and loss of appetite.
Antibiotics are effective in relieving the symptoms of whooping cough, if they are administered in the early stages of the infection. Although in the later stages these medicines are less effective, they are important as they help in clearing out the bacteria from the secretions. This reduces the risk of the disease spreading to other members of the family.
Other than waiting for the coughing to subside (which may take 1 to 2 weeks), there is hardly any other whooping cough treatment that parents or a doctor can resort to. Cough suppressants must be avoided unless advised by the physician, as coughing is the body’s mechanism of clearing out mucus.
In case the infection becomes serious and the infant does not respond to antibiotics, hospitalization may be required. In the hospital, the child may be put on oxygen and given intravenous liquids to prevent dehydration. For older children, bed rest and antibiotics are effective in relieving the symptoms.
Infants, usually those under 6 months of age, are susceptible to complications like secondary bacterial pneumonia, which refers to pneumonia caused after another infection of the lungs. Other complications include seizures, asthma, dehydration, ear infections, and injury to chest muscles due to excessive coughing. Apart from this, encephalopathy (functioning of the brain is affected) may also develop due to insufficient supply of oxygen to the brain caused by the episodes of coughing. Although older children and adults may also develop complications due to whooping cough, infants are the most affected. In certain cases, infants succumb to it due to such severe complications.
Although most common in infants, even adults may get affected by whooping cough once the effect of the vaccine wears off. However, since whooping cough is a serious and fatal condition, timely immunization against the pertussis bacteria is the best step to fight the infection.