Just the Facts: Whooping Cough
Whooping cough, a highly contagious disease marked by severe coughing, is on the rise in the United States, says the National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners.

Since the 1980s, the number of people who have contracted whooping cough has risen steadily, reports the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Between 5,000 and 7,000 people in the United States still contract the disease each year, and an average of five to 10 children die from it annually. The deaths tend to occur in children who are unvaccinated, and infants under one year are at the greatest risk of contracting the illness.

What is Whooping Cough?
Whooping cough (or Pertussis) is named after the “whoop” sound children make when they try to breathe in during or after a severe coughing spell. Caused by the bacteria Bordetella pertussis, whooping cough is an infection of the respiratory system. The bacteria get into the lining of the breathing passages, causing inflammation and narrowing of airways. Whooping cough is highly contagious and spread through close contact.

Whooping cough usually starts with cold- or flu-like symptoms—runny nose, sneezing and mild cough—which can last up to two weeks and are followed by increasingly severe coughing spells. Because its symptoms mimic those of a cold, whooping cough is difficult to diagnose. Keep an eye out for these telltale symptoms:

  • Mild fever

  • Vomiting

  • Lips and nails may turn blue from lack of oxygen

  • Coughs produce thick mucus

  •  Exhaustion, especially after coughing fits

Who Gets It?

Whooping cough can occur at any age, but infants and young children are most susceptible. Though seldom serious in adults, whooping cough can carry life-threatening consequences for young infants, especially those who haven’t been immunized against the disease. Pneumonia is the most common complication and cause of infantile-pertussis-related deaths. Other whooping cough-related complications include:

  • Seizures

  • Encephalopathy (swelling of the brain)

  • Severe ear infections

  • Anorexia (severe restriction of food intake)

  • Dehydration (marked by lack of urine production)

What Can You Do?
While there is no lifelong protection against whooping cough, immunization is the best preventive measure for your child. The vaccine to protect your child against whooping cough is the diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis (DTap) vaccine. It should be administered in five doses, beginning at two months of age. (Has your child received her latest vaccines? Click
here to view the American Academy of Pediatrics’ “Recommended Childhood Immunization Schedule” for 2003.)

If you think your child may have whooping cough, contact your pediatrician immediately. The disease is treated with antibiotics. Until your child has taken all of the prescribed medication, it’s best to keep her away from others, especially small infants and other children. Don’t worry: Early detection and treatment of whooping cough rarely results in anything but a full recovery.

Further Reading
For more on whooping cough, check out these resources:

  • "" target=new>National Association of Pediatric Nurses Practitioners’ whooping cough Web site

  • "">Winter Warning About Whooping Cough

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