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Whooping Cough

Whooping Cough

Pertussis, also known as whooping cough, is a highly contagious respiratory disease. It is caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis. Pertussis is known for uncontrollable, violent coughing which often makes it hard to breathe. After cough fits, someone with pertussis often needs to take deep breaths, which result in a “whooping” sound.

Pertussis can affect people of all ages, but can be very serious, even deadly, for babies less than a year old.

Risk factors

Whooping cough is thought to be on the rise for two main reasons. The whooping cough vaccine you receive as a child eventually wears off. This leaves most teenagers and adults susceptible to the infection during an outbreak and there continue to be regular outbreaks.

In addition, children aren’t fully immune to whooping cough until they’ve received at least three shots, leaving those 6 months and younger at greatest risk of contracting the infection.

Causes of whooping cough

Whooping cough is caused by an infection by a bacterium known as Bordetella pertussis. The bacteria attach to the lining of the airways in the upper respiratory system and release toxins that lead to inflammation and swelling. Most people acquire the bacteria by breathing in the bacteria that are present in droplets released when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

Contagiousness Pertussis is highly contagious.

The bacteria spread from person to person through tiny drops of fluid from an infected person’s nose or mouth. These may become airborne when the person sneezes, coughs, or laughs. Others then can become infected by inhaling the drops or getting the drops on their hands and then touching their mouths or noses. Infected people are most contagious during the earliest stages of the illness for up to about 2 weeks after the cough begins. Antibiotics shorten the period of contagiousness to 5 days following the start of antibiotic treatment.


Whooping cough is normally characterised by severe coughing spasms followed by a gasp for breath that sounds like a “whoop”. However, in some cases this distinctive noise is not evident and symptoms may be similar to other coughs and colds. Whooping cough affects the upper respiratory tract, causing the lining of the air passages to become inflamed and damaged.

This leads to an excess production of mucous, which in turn irritates the respiratory tract and causes the high pitched cough characteristic of the disease. Croup is another respiratory tract infection with a characteristic barking cough that affects young children.

The symptoms of whooping cough usually follow a cycle that lasts for a number of weeks. There are three distinct stages:

First stage (Catarrhal stage): lasting 1-2 weeks: Loss of appetite, Slight fever Watery, running nose and eyes, Fatigue Sneezing Irritating cough (particularly at night). Symptoms experienced during this stage often resemble those of a common cold or mild bronchitis.

Second stage (Paroxysmal stage): usually lasting 1-6 weeks, but can continue for up to 10 weeks: Severe coughing spasms, A high-pitched “whooping” sound when inhaling after a coughing spasm (the “whoop” sound may not occur with young infants) Vomiting or turning blue due to severe coughing or choking on mucous. The coughing spasms characteristic of this stage may be triggered by such things as crying, feeding, overactivity or tobacco smoke. Where possible it is important to avoid exposure to potential triggers in order to reduce the frequency of coughing spasms.

Third stage (Convalescent stage): may last for months: During this stage symptoms subside, though subsequent respiratory infections, even months after the initial whooping cough infection, can cause a recurrence of the coughing spasms.

Complications of whooping cough

Dehydration, Pneumonia, Brochiectasis, Middle ear infection, Temporary cessation of breathing (apnoea), Hernia (commonly in the groin) caused by excessive coughing, Encephalopathy (disruption in brain function) eg: swelling, damage, seizures.

It is important to watch for any signs of complications. A doctor should be consulted immediately if complications are suspected.