What Is Whooping Cough and Is It Contagious? - Dr. Amino

What Is Whooping Cough and Is It Contagious?

Learn about whooping cough

Whooping cough seems to be an illness associated with another era. While it was thought to be on the decline in the developed world, it has made a resurgence. Although it seldom causes serious complications, it can be harmful—and even fatal—to certain segments of the population, especially the very young and the very old. Fortunately, prevention and treatment are easily accessible.

What Is Whooping Cough?

Pertussis, also called “whooping cough” because of the “whooping” sound made by a person gasping for air after a coughing fit, can cause serious illness in people of all ages. It can even be life-threatening, especially in babies, who do not get their first whooping cough vaccination until they are two months old. About half of the babies less than one year old who get pertussis need hospital treatment.

Because coughing fits from the pertussis infection can last for 10 weeks or more, people call the illness the “100-day cough.”

Rising Number of Whooping Cough Cases

Globally, there are about 24.1 million cases of pertussis and about 160,700 deaths per year. In 2012, the most recent peak year, the CDC reported 48,277 cases of pertussis in the U.S., the largest number since 1955 when public health experts reported 62,786 cases. While the 18,000 cases reported in 2018 represented a decrease from that 60-year high, it is still a frightening resurgence to public health experts.

Since the 1980s, reported cases of pertussis have been increasing in the U.S. In 2010, there was an increase of reported cases among 7- to 10-year-olds. That trend, as well as an increase in cases among teens, have continued in ensuing years. Many cases of whooping cough go undiagnosed and unreported, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Because of the pertussis vaccine, whooping cough was virtually eliminated in the 1970s. At that time the number of U.S. cases in the U.S. fell to a low of 1,010 per year. Recently, there have been several outbreaks of the bacterial illness.

While a review of 32 studies on pertussis published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) implicated parents who choose not to vaccinate their children as a key factor in the uptick of cases, there were also increases in whooping cough cases among people with high rates of vaccinations. That suggested that other factors, such as decreasing vaccine effectiveness over time, contribute to the problem. Luckily, most people only get pertussis once. When a person is recovering, another respiratory infection can bring back the symptoms, but only for as long as the cold lasts.

Is Whooping Cough Contagious?

The Bordetella pertussis bacterium causes whooping cough. An atypical bacterium that does not enter the bloodstream, Bordetella pertussis remains in the upper airways and keeps the body from clearing airway secretions by infecting the cells needed to do that. Symptoms in the early phases of infection make whooping cough appear as though the infected person has a common cold, but then there are unrelenting coughing spells that often interfere with breathing.

Pertussis spreads easily from person to person when someone sneezes, laughs, or coughs. Someone in the vicinity may breathe in the droplets and become infected. Bacteria attach themselves to small hairs in the linings of the lungs, causing swelling and inflammation, which, in turn, cause a dry, long-lasting cough and other cold-like symptoms.

A closely related bacterium, Bordetella parapertussis, can also cause whooping cough. A less severe form of the illness, this bacterium is probably responsible for less than 1% of cases.

Most people cannot pass on whooping cough after three to six weeks, even if they do not receive an antibiotic. Those people who do receive the antibiotic cannot transmit the illness after five days on the antibiotic.

Is There a Whooping Cough Vaccine?

The CDC advocates preventing pertussis by vaccination with DTaP for babies and children and with Tdap for preteens, teens, and adults. DTaP, the five-shot whooping cough vaccine series, protects children against diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis. It is administered as soon as two months of age and up to kindergarten enrollment. The CDC pushes for pregnant women to be vaccinated for each pregnancy between 27 and 36 weeks with Tdap, a booster shot, to help protect babies. Although vaccinated children and adults can get and spread pertussis, the disease is usually much less serious in vaccinated people.

Kristen Nordlund, a spokeswoman for the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, described whooping cough vaccines as “effective but not perfect.” She explained, “They typically offer good levels of protection within the first two years of getting vaccinated, but then protection decreases over time.” A study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal in September 2016 agreed. According to the article, whooping cough vaccine is very effective at protecting against pertussis during the first three years after vaccination, but its effectiveness decreases after that. By the seventh year after the vaccine, there is very little protection, necessitating booster shots.

Researchers believe that the vaccination is the most effective means of reducing whooping cough risk as well as the risk of associated complications and transmission to other people. Even when it becomes less effective, the vaccine can continue to reduce the severity of the disease and the possibility of transmitting it to other people.

The CDC recommends the booster shot as well. Doctors and travel clinics can provide the booster, REPEVAX.  

Is There a Whooping Cough Cure?

Doctors usually treat pertussis with antibiotics as quickly as possible to control symptoms and to keep those infected from spreading the infection. Erythromycin is the antibiotic of choice. Most treatments, according to the CDC, make little difference. Whooping cough gets better in a time frame from three weeks to three months. The main remedy is prevention.

Recovery from pertussis can be a slow process in which coughing reduces in severity and frequency, but coughing fits can come back with other respiratory infections many months after the original infection started. Once whooping cough symptoms have faded, you can engage in normal activities, including exercise, driving, and using the voice.

To keep your immune system strong against respiratory infections, keep your amino acid intake optimal with supplemental support.

What Are Whooping Cough Symptoms?

After a person is exposed to pertussis, symptoms normally develop in 5 to 10 days, but they might take as long as three weeks to emerge. Whooping cough normally begins with cold-like symptoms and possibly a mild cough or fever. Babies may not have a cough, but they might have a pause in their breathing pattern known as apnea. People who have had the pertussis vaccine usually have the cough for a shorter amount of time and have fewer coughing fits, whooping, and vomiting after coughing. Vaccinated kids tend to have milder apnea, cyanosis (blue or purple skin coloring from lack of oxygen), and vomiting.

Early symptoms, which may last for one to two weeks, include runny nose, low-grade fever, and mild and occasional cough. In babies, apnea is an early symptom. Because symptoms are cold-like, doctors may not recognize pertussis in the early stages.

When the illness progresses after one to two weeks, symptoms may include: paroxysms (fits) of a series of quick coughs followed by a high-pitched “whoop” sound; vomiting; and exhaustion. Babies may stop breathing and turn blue without any sign of coughing.

Coughing fits exacerbate as the illness progresses and are more frequent at night. They may last for 10 weeks or more.

Are There Whooping Cough Risks?

Babies are at greatest risk for whooping cough complications. In addition to not getting their first vaccination before two months old, babies do not have as developed immune systems to protect against whooping cough as older children and most adults do. They can encounter serious complications including pneumonia and convulsions. According to the CDC, 1 out of 4 babies who contract pertussis will develop pneumonia, and 1 or 2 out of every 100 will die. Because adults may unknowingly pass the illness on to babies, it is important to ascertain that everyone who touches them has had the pertussis vaccine.

Frail or elderly people are at high risk for complications from whooping cough. They might have weak bones from osteoporosis that can break during a coughing fit, and persistent coughing can make it next to impossible to eat.

Other complications of whooping cough are possible but not likely. There could be lung damage if the person with whooping cough develops pneumonia. Now that an acellular vaccine is used to treat whooping cough, there is no possibility of brain damage, experts say.

Learn about whooping cough

The Dr. Amino Team

Experts in amino acid research, the Dr. Amino team works tirelessly to give you the most up-to-date amino acid and health information available. We’re dedicated to helping you transform your body and mind using the power of amino acids and wellness best practices that enhance quality of life and longevity.

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