Whooping cough is a highly contagious bacterial infection of the lungs and airways. The medical term for whooping cough is pertussis.
The condition usually begins with a persistent dry and irritating cough that progresses to intense bouts of coughing. These are followed by a distinctive ‘whooping’ noise, which is how the condition gets its name.
Other symptoms include a runny nose, raised temperature and vomiting after coughing.
The coughing can last for around three months (another name for whooping cough is the ‘hundred day cough’).
Whooping cough is caused by a bacterium called Bordetella pertussis, which can be passed from person to person through droplets in the air from coughing and sneezing.
Treating whooping cough
If whooping cough is diagnosed during the first three weeks (21 days) of infection, a course of antibiotics may be prescribed. This is to prevent the infection being passed on to others.
It is important to take steps to avoid spreading the infection to others, particularly babies under six months of age.
Children with whooping cough should be kept away from school or nursery for five days from the time they start taking a prescribed course of antibiotics. The same advice applies to adults returning to work.
As a precaution, household members of someone with whooping cough may also be given antibiotics and a booster shot of the vaccine.
Antibiotics will not usually be prescribed in cases where whooping cough is not diagnosed until the later stages of infection (beyond 2-3 weeks after the onset of symptoms).
By this time, the Bordetella pertussis bacterium will have gone by this time so you will no longer be infectious. It is also very unlikely that antibiotics will improve your symptoms at this stage.
Your GP will be able to advise you about how to manage the infection at home using some simple, self care advice, such as ensuring that you get plenty of rest and that you drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration.
Babies under the age of six months are likely to be admitted to hospital as they are most at risk of severe complications, such as serious breathing difficulties.
They will be treated in isolation to prevent the infection spreading and will be given antibiotics into a vein through a drip (intravenously).
In the UK, all pregnant women are now to be offered vaccination against whooping cough when they are 28-38 weeks pregnant. Getting vaccinated while you’re pregnant could help to protect your baby from developing whooping cough in its first few weeks of life.
Children are vaccinated against whooping cough at two, three and four months of age, and again before starting school at the age of about three years and four months.
Although the number of cases of whooping cough has fallen dramatically since vaccination began, it is still possible for children to get the infection, so having the vaccination is vital.
The more people vaccinated against whooping cough the less chance there is of them passing on the infection to a young baby in which it could cause serious, and possibly fatal, complications.
The effectiveness of the whooping cough vaccination may fade over time, meaning it is possible to develop the condition during adulthood if you were previously vaccinated.
Who is affected
Due to the success of the NHS vaccination scheme, whooping cough is now uncommon in young children.
Most cases now occur in adults whose immunity has faded and in these cases symptoms tend to be less serious (although having to live with a persistent cough can be both frustrating and unpleasant).
Whooping cough is a cyclical disease with the number of cases peaking every three to four years. The numbers were high in 2012: in the first 10 months of the year, there were 7,728 reported cases in the UK, with 13 babies having died. During the whole of 2011 there were only 910 cases in England and Wales.