Skip to main content
Whooping Cough Can Kill

You are listening to The Scope Radio:

Whooping Cough Can Kill

Dec 08, 2014
Pertussis is the medical term for whooping cough. It’s contagious and can be deadly, especially in infants. Dr. Cindy Gellner talks about the symptoms of whooping cough and tells parents how to distinguish it from a regular cough. She also talks about preventions and advises when kids should be getting the whooping cough vaccine.

Episode Transcript

Dr. Cindy Gellner: So when is a cough just a cough or when is it something more serious, like whooping cough? I'm Dr. Cindy Gellner and that's today on The Scope.

Announcer: Medical news and research from University of Utah physicians and specialists you can use for a happier and healthier life. You're listening to The Scope.

Dr. Cindy Gellner: So whooping cough is pertussis. Pertussis is actually a bacteria called Bordetella pertussis. It's called whooping cough because of the sound that it makes. Not all kids who have whooping cough will make the whoop sound. That is why it's so important kids get vaccinated for whooping cough in the first couple sets of shots.
Kids will get vaccinated for whooping cough at two months, four months, six months, 15 months, and then finally again at age four. The whooping cough actually makes a whoop sound where you'll hear a coughing, it's called paroxysmal coughing, and that's just a big long coughing spasm where kids will just cough and cough and cough and cough and then you hear [whoop sound] and that's exactly what it sounds like.
The whoop that goes along with the whooping cough is the one that really scares most pediatricians. Whooping cough can be deadly to babies. At six months old the immune system that they got through their mom's placenta will actually start to wean off and they have to develop their own immune system.
So that's why there's so many shots for babies until they're six months old, you get a little break at nine months old, until the 12 month old vaccines but there's so many shots until six months old so they can get protected from things like pertussis, tetanus, polio, their hepatitis B vaccine, HIB, that's Haemophilus influenzae type B, that's a bacteria that causes ear infections the pneumonia and meningitis.
But pertussis is one that really scares us because babies, if they get pertussis or whooping cough, they won't cough like that sometimes. They will just stop breathing. The younger they are, the more likely they are to just stop breathing. For older kids and the kids that you're going to hear that whoop on, pertussis, or whooping cough, it actually has three different phases. So the first one is about two weeks, you just have a persistent cold, runny nose, mild cough, pink eyes, not pink eyes as in like goopy eyes, but just injected eyes. And it will seem like a lingering cold, it just won't go away.
The second phase, that's when you hear that whoop, it's just a cough that just gets worse and worse and worse. It can last up to a month. The cough can often make the kids vomit or their face will turn red or blue and it's almost always worse at night.
If your child is old enough to have had all the whooping cough vaccines, then the good news is that they probably aren't going to get whooping cough. This vaccine is very effective.
The third phase of the whooping cough is recovery. It takes about another month for the cough to improve. The good news is whooping cough is able to be detected by a swab that we will put up a child's nose and send it off to look for this particular bacteria. If the test comes positive for that bacteria, there are antibiotics that can be given to treat whooping cough.
So the good news is, this is very treatable. It's also very contagious. Again, in going back to the babies, they can't get all the shots at once, so that's why it's really important, if you have a baby that you're around, you get a whooping cough vaccine. Pregnant women get them before they leave the hospital after they have their babies, anyone that's a daycare provider needs to be sure they have them. Grandparents need to get the whooping cough vaccine too.
Treatment of pertussis, or whooping cough, again, we do the antibiotics. The other things that can help are humidifier in the room and actually that works for any cough. Cough is your body's way of getting rid of sticky mucous that's sticking in your lungs and causing you to just get that little tickle in the back of your throat. So getting rid of thick secretions in the nose and throat can be helped with a humidifier.
Also, a bulb syringe and saline for the babies, they can't blow their noses and babies cannot breathe out of their mouth until they're about nine months old.
Other things that you can use for helping with coughing, chicken soup, anything that's warm, it's a great time of year for hot chocolate. So warm liquids will actually help with those coughing spasms too.
Honey, let's talk honey. Honey is fine for children over one year old. If they are under one year old, do not give your child honey, they cannot protect themselves from something called botulism. Botulism will cause bad things, muscle spasms, very painful to watch, very painful for the child to go through, not very easy to treat. So honey, under one, is a no no.
Other things you can do to help your child with coughing spasms, make sure that they are kept away from things, like smoke, tobacco smoke, perfumes, other pollutants in the air, that is something you're going to want your child to stay away from, so that they don't have extra inventive to cough.
How can you prevent the spread of whooping cough? Well the first thing, if a child has not been vaccinated against whooping cough, and they are old enough to be vaccinated, which is anyone over two months old, make sure you vaccinate those children, get them up to date on their vaccines.
If somebody has tested positive for that pertussis bacteria, you can give antibiotics to anyone that's been exposed to the disease. Usually the health department gets involved with this because whooping cough is a bacteria that does need to be reported to the health department.
So remember, whooping cough is a very dangerous disease, especially for babies, they don't have the immunity yet. The risk of death from whooping cough is far greater than any of the possible side effects of the shot.

Announcer: We're your daily dose of science, conversation, medicine. This is The Scope, University of Utah Health Sciences Radio.