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Dr Chris Steele


Whooping cough

What is whooping cough?
Whooping cough is also known as pertussis. It is a highly infectious disease, which can be very dangerous in the first year of life. After an incubation period of 7 - 14 days, the child begins with what appears to be an ordinary cold and a cough. The child develops:

  • A fever
  • A runny nose
  • A cough, which, after about 10 days, becomes very severe and frightening for the child

The Whoop:
The child experiences bouts of coughing which are so persistent that breathing-in becomes difficult. After continual coughing the child attempts to gasp for air and as the air is inhaled down through the inflamed airways a peculiar whooping sound is produced. Once heard, this sound is never forgotten! Whooping cough is a horrendous experience for the child, the parents and the family. Throughout the night the poor child coughs, coughs and whoops as he fights for breath, then coughs, coughs and coughs again followed by more gasping for breath and whooping. The unrelenting session finally ends with the child vomiting. This coughing phase can last for two months. The child becomes exhausted. The strain of coughing can burst blood vessels in the eye turning the white part of the eye bright red. A child with whooping cough is a sorry sight!

This disease can be serious in babies. Inability to breathe in after a coughing spasm can turn the child blue and has proven fatal in some cases. The immense strain of coughing can damage the sensitive lungs and cause blood vessels in the brain to rupture to produce a brain hemorrhage. Vomiting can lead to dehydration, and further problems include convulsions, ear infection and lung infections such as bronchopneumonia and bronchitis.

Who gets whooping cough?
Any child that has not been vaccinated is at high risk of picking up this dangerous disease. Despite all the controversy about side effects from the vaccine I strongly recommend immunisation against this disease - the first injection to be given at the age of 2 months.

What causes whooping cough?
Unlike many of the infectious diseases, whooping cough is not caused by a virus but by another type of infecting organism - a bacterium. This 'bug' or bacterium is spread through minute droplets that are propelled through the air, when the child coughs or sneezes. This disease is very infectious.

Can you prevent whooping cough?
There is only one way to prevent this disease from affecting your child - immunisation at 2 months, 3 months and four months! This disease can be eradicated.

How should you treat whooping cough?

  • Keep temperature down (see fever control article)
  • During a coughing spasm sit your child upright, holding a bowl under the chin for him to cough any sputum or vomit into
  • If possible, sleep in the same room. Coughing bouts, gasping for air and vomiting can be frightening for a child alone at night
  • During the day, give him drinks and small snacks immediately after a coughing bout that ends in vomiting. You have to get some nourishment into him before the next coughing spasm starts
  • DO NOT SMOKE near your child

The cough can persist for 8 - 12 weeks, so do be patient!

Little babies rarely whoop. So if your baby has a cold followed by a cough that is worsening, contact your GP. He may take special swabs to confirm the diagnosis. If given early in the course of the disease, certain antibiotics such as erythromycin and cotrimoxazole can modify the attack.

Your GP may also prescribe sedation such as vallergan or phenergan for night time use, but sedative and cough medicines have not been proven to be of any great benefit.