Pertussis (whooping cough) is a highly contagious respiratory tract infection caused by bacteria that lives in the mouth, nose and throat. Once a person becomes infected, it takes about seven to 10 days for signs and symptoms to appear. “It is very contagious and spreads from person-to-person,” says Stephanie Strollo, MD, a Carolinas HealthCare System physician specializing in infectious disease prevention.

Child Health, Your Health | 19 days ago

Whooping Cough: What You Need to Know

Have you ever coughed so hard that you couldn’t catch your breath – causing a “whooping” sound between coughs? Pertussis can cause violent and rapid coughing until the air is gone from the lungs.

Pertussis (whooping cough) is a highly contagious respiratory tract infection caused by bacteria that lives in the mouth, nose and throat. Once a person becomes infected, it takes about seven to 10 days for signs and symptoms to appear. “It is very contagious and spreads from person-to-person,” says Stephanie Strollo, MD, a Carolinas HealthCare System physician specializing in infectious disease prevention. “People with pertussis can spread the infection when they cough or sneeze or if they are in close proximity to one another.”

The Stages of Pertussis

The course of whooping cough is divided into three stages. The first stage (catarrhal stage) is similar to a cold – symptoms include a cough, runny nose and low-grade fever. This phase can last up to two weeks and it is recommended that a person experiencing these symptoms begin antibiotic treatment during this time to fight the bacteria before the cough begins.

The second stage (paroxysmal stage) is easily recognizable by the intense bursts of coughing. Often, a person coughs so violently that the air is gone from their lungs and a “whoop” can be heard as the person gasps between coughs. The duration of this phase can last anywhere from a week to 10 weeks. Newborn babies and infants are particularly at risk. “Many children under one year are hospitalized,” says Dr. Strollo. “About 1 percent of babies hospitalized with pertussis will die, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

The last stage (convalescent stage) is the gradual recovery stage. This can last for weeks or months and is characterized by a chronic cough that becomes less paroxysmal.

Vaccination is the Key to Prevention

“Vaccination is the best way to prevent pertussis,” says Dr. Strollo. Infants and children under 6 years old should receive five doses of the DTap vaccination. Adolescents are recommended to receive a single booster of Tdap around 11 or 12 years of age. From there, it is recommended that adults renew their Tdap vaccination every 10 years.

It is equally as important to vaccinate pregnant women in their third trimester of each pregnancy to protect unborn babies from pertussis. The early protection is necessary because babies do not get their whooping cough vaccines until they reach two months. These first few months are when your baby is at the greatest risk of developing whooping cough. 

Visit Your Physician for Treatment Options

If you recognize the symptoms of pertussis, it is important to schedule an appointment with your physician as early as possible and that you stay away from others to prevent the bacteria from spreading. “People diagnosed with pertussis should stay home, away from others for five days after starting appropriate antibiotics,” says Dr. Strollo. Depending how early a patient gets treatment for their symptoms, it is suggested that the patient take antibiotics for up to two weeks. Missing a dose or stopping early can sometimes result in a relapse so it is important that you take all doses and finish the recommended course. Researchers emphasize that over-the-counter cough medicines are not as effective and should not be taken for pertussis. 

In addition, it is recommended to minimize irritants that might trigger a coughing fit. A cool mist vaporizer or a humidifier help loosen mucus and soothe the cough. Drink plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration. And if you suspect signs of dehydration, contact your doctor immediately.