According to the Mayo Clinic, whooping cough (pertussis) is a highly contagious respiratory tract infection. This condition often starts like the common cold, advises the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Patients may experience runny nose or congestion and sneezing. After one to two weeks, severe coughing can begin. That coughing can make it hard to breathe, sucking the air out of the lungs until the patient tries to take a breath with a deep “whoop” sound.
Whooping Cough Explained
Whooping cough is caused by the Bordetella pertussis or Bordetella parapertussis bacteria. According to the University of Wisconsin, this is a rod-shaped bacterium that triggers the body’s immune response. The immune system senses a cytokine reaction, which is toxic to the body. As a result, the body initiates inflammation of the tissues and blood vessels.
The Mayo Clinic explains that in the first half of the 20th century, whooping cough was a leading cause of childhood illness and death in the United States. After the first vaccine was introduced, the number of affected people gradually declined, reaching a low in the mid-1970s. Since that time, however, the incidence of whooping cough has begun to increase, particularly among children too young to have completed the full course of vaccinations. Teenagers and adults with compromised immunity are also at risk.
Two important theories explain the latest rise in whooping cough cases. The vaccine received in childhood eventually wears off, which leaves most teenagers and adults susceptible to the infection during outbreaks, which regularly occur. Moreover, children are not fully immune to whooping cough until they receive at least three shots, which leaves those six months and younger at risk of contracting the infection.
Signs and Symptoms of Whooping Cough
According to the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI), when an infected person sneezes or coughs, tiny droplets containing the bacteria move through the air, whereby whooping cough is easily spread among people. Once inside the airways, the bacteria multiply and produce toxins that interfere with the respiratory tract’s ability to sweep away germs. The Mayo Clinic indicates thick mucus accumulates inside the airways, causing uncontrollable coughing. Inflammation caused by the bacteria may also narrow breathing tubes in the lungs, which leaves one gasping for air.
The NCBI states infection often lasts six weeks and may require hospitalization. Initial symptoms often develop about one week after exposure to the bacteria. Severe episodes of coughing may start 10 to 12 days later. The whoop noise heard during breathing is rare in patients under six months of age and in adults. Those patients may, instead, have deep fits of coughing. Those fits may lead to vomiting or a short loss of consciousness. In infants, choking spells are also common. Patients may also experience a slight fever (102 degrees F or lower) and diarrhea.
Additional symptoms of whooping cough, as provided by the Mayo Clinic, include the following:
- Red, watery eyes
- Dry cough
- Thick phlegm
- Red or blue face that ensues from coughing
- Extreme fatigue