Whooping cough is a common bacterial infection that affects the airways and lungs, usually in toddlers and children. It’s spread from one child to another by coughs and sneezes and is highly contagious It causes a persistent cough that can last for several months. For this reason, it is also referred to as the 100-day cough. As doctors, we call it pertussis. Hand hygiene, coughing and sneezing into tissues which are immediately disposed of, and staying away from others while they are infectious are paramount to reduce the spread. It forms one part of the usual childhood immunisations.
Whooping cough gets its name from a very distinctive cough that gives a whoop sound caused by the gasp for breath between coughs. It starts off in a similar way to other airways infections, with a runny nose, sore throat and mild temperature. After a week, the cough develops – you can expect bouts of coughing, lasting several minutes, and this is usually worse at night. Your child may bring up a thick yellow mucus. It can be tough for your child to get through whooping cough – during a nasty bout, you might see them gasp for air and make a noise similar to a whoop, hence the name. The coughing bouts can become so intense, that your child may vomit, and the strain of coughing can leave your child with bloodshot eyes or nosebleeds. It can make young and vulnerable children and babies very sick, and they may have brief periods of not breathing and turning blue. If this happens you should dial 999 for an ambulance straight away. While the cough may persist, it eases over time to become less severe.
Whooping cough is highly contagious and can affect anyone who comes into close contact with someone who has it. They are more likely to pass it on from day 6 of becoming unwell to 3 weeks after the cough starts. Babies under 6 months are at increased risk, so vaccines are offered during pregnancy, and you're more likely to get it if you haven’t had the full set of vaccines to protect you from it. While there is a vaccine offered to all, there have been increasing cases in recent years, and whooping cough seems to come in outbreaks every few years.
Those with severe symptoms may need to be admitted, so it’s important that if you or your child have any significant difficulty in breathing, periods where you stop breathing, or your lips turn blue, you should call an ambulance immediately. For others who do not need hospitalisation, antibiotic treatment in the first 3 weeks can be effective in reducing the spread and the duration of the illness. After 3 weeks, antibiotics are less effective. If you start antibiotics, you should stay away from others until after day 5. If you have been diagnosed don’t have antibiotics, you should stay at home for 3 weeks after the coughing began. At home, it is important your child gets plenty of rest, drinks lots of fluids and takes simple medications such as paracetamol and ibuprofen to reduce fever and pain. If symptoms have persisted for longer than 3 weeks or they are getting worse, you should speak to your GP or 111 for further advice.
The UK childhood vaccination schedule offers the 6-in-1 vaccine, which includes pertussis, at 8, 12 and 16 weeks of age, and it’s in the 4-in-1 preschool booster, at 3 years and 4 months. These vaccinations are important in preventing children from getting whooping cough, although it doesn’t offer lifelong immunity. Babies are at particularly high risk, so to protect them from birth, pregnant women are offered a pertussis vaccine to boost their antibodies from week 16 of pregnancy. They need to renew this with every pregnancy, to offer their baby the best protection.