Whoops! Let’s Get the Facts Straight on Whooping Cough

Monday, June 11, 2012
As the number of pertussis cases continues to rise, so do the questions, myths and misinformation surrounding the illness.
Child blowing his nose.

Pertussis, or whooping cough, is a highly contagious respiratory illness that causes a severe cough and can spread easily from person to person by coughing and sneezing. Washington state health officials estimate the state will see an increase in the number of whooping cough cases that has not been experienced in decades.

What are the Symptoms of Whooping Cough?

Early on, whooping cough usually causes sneezing, runny nose, stuffy nose, a mild cough and other cold symptoms. After one to two weeks, the cold symptoms improve, but the cough worsens, often causing severe coughing attacks that can lead to gagging, choking and breathing problems. After two to six weeks, the cough starts to improve, but it can take several weeks to months for the cough to go away completely.

Whooping cough gets its name because many people make a “whoop” sound when they breathe in after a coughing attack, but not everyone with whooping cough makes this noise.

What Should I do if I Think I Have Whooping Cough?

  • Go to your doctor immediately to get the proper assessment, testing and treatment. It’s especially important to seek medical care for the more vulnerable populations, including infants, pregnant women, the elderly and immune-compromised individuals.
  • Stay away from public settings until five days of antibiotic treatment are completed. If no antibiotic treatment is instituted, then no contact for 21 days from beginning of cough.
  • Get treatment for other household members and “high-risk close contacts”: those in close contact with vulnerable populations, including schoolteachers, health care workers and family members around infants and pregnant women.

How is Whooping Cough Treated?

Doctors usually treat whooping cough with antibiotics, which does not kill the bug, but can help fight the infection and keep it from spreading. People living with the infected person might also need to take antibiotics — even if they aren’t sick — to keep them from getting the infection.

Most babies need to be treated in the hospital because of the severity of the infection. In the hospital, doctors can watch a baby closely, providing oxygen, fluids and nutrition as necessary.

Is There Anything I can do on my Own to Feel Better?

  • Get plenty of rest
  • Drink plenty of fluids
  • Support your immune system
  • Eat small meals to avoid vomiting after coughing
  • Avoid being around people who are smoking

— Abigail Aiyepola, ND, LM, naturopathic physician, licensed midwife and resident at Bastyr Center for Natural Health, the teaching clinic of Bastyr University.

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