About whooping cough

Far more than just a cough, this disease can be very dangerous.
About whooping cough - baby coughing

It’s the most awful sound – the “whoop” that children make as they gasp for air in between coughs. That sound gives whooping cough (pertussis) its name, and if you thought it was an old-fashioned illness like polio or typhoid that we no longer have to worry about, think again. It’s very common, and potentially very dangerous. There’s still a lot of ignorance surrounding this infection, which can be fatal. Here’s what you need to know:

  • We’re currently in the middle of a whooping cough epidemic.

  • Since the outbreak started in August last year, there have been more than 4900 cases reported. While the vaccine for whooping cough has helped to prevent a lot of cases, there tends to be an outbreak every three to five years.

  • There are also epidemics happening in other parts of the world, including in the US and Britain. In Britain, the authorities are so concerned about babies getting whooping cough they’re suggesting pregnant women get immunised.

Whooping cough can have serious complications

The bouts of coughing it causes can be severe in small babies, resulting in them turning blue and stopping breathing. Whooping cough can lead to pneumonia, fits, brain damage and in rare cases, death.

Babies under six months old don’t usually whoop

While the telltale gasp is a clue, it can be harder to pick up in little babies because they tend not to make the sound. Instead they may appear to have a cold and an unrelenting cough, which leads to difficulty breathing. They may become exhausted from coughing so much and not be able to feed properly. In older babies and young children, whooping cough usually starts with cold-like symptoms such as a runny nose, mild fever and sneezing, which can last for one to two weeks. A cough then develops which gets worse over a week or two. The child will gasp for air between bouts of coughing and go red in the face. They may vomit after coughing.

Adults can also get whooping cough

It’s usually more mild, although it can be difficult to shake and the constant coughing can be exhausting. It can also mean they need lots of time off work. One of the biggest risks of adults getting it is that they can pass it on to vulnerable children.

Immunity only lasts 10 years

After a decade the protective effects of the vaccine wear off. The Ministry of Health recommends adults get booster shots, especially if they are parents of babies or come into regular contact with small children, such as working at a daycare centre. Shots for children under 16 are free but adults need to pay around $25. They may also need to pay the usual fee for a doctor’s visit.

There’s no treatment

Whooping cough is caused by bacteria, but antibiotics won’t stop it once it has started. If taken very early in the illness antibiotics may help reduce the severity of the infection. They can also make it less contagious, and reduce the chance of you passing it on to others. Cough medicines won’t stop the cough once it has started and because they may have side effects they are not recommended.

Small babies are particularly vulnerable

Babies don’t have their first whooping vaccine until they are six weeks old so if they are exposed before then, they can easily get whooping cough. They may still be vulnerable until they’ve had their full course of vaccines which they should get at three and five months, as well as the six-week one. The schedule includes booster shots at ages four and 11. University of Auckland Associate Professor of Paediatrics Cameron Grant says one in three infants in New Zealand are at higher risk of ending up in hospital with whooping cough because they haven’t been immunised on time. “The most effective way of reducing the number of little babies in hospital with this horrible disease is by making sure they are immunised on time, every time.” In more than 70% of cases, newborn babies catch whooping cough from their parents or other family members.

Did you know… Whooping cough can last for weeks or even months.

Related stories

Get The Australian Woman’s Weekly NZ home delivered!  

Subscribe and save up to 38% on a magazine subscription.