Everything you need to know about whooping cough

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Whooping cough sound
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Whooping cough is a bacterial infection which affects the lungs and airways. It can be particularly serious in young babies, so it's crucial to know how to spot the signs.


Would YOU know what whooping cough sounds like? This new video released by Mayo Clinic shows a baby girl making the distinctive 'whooping' sound between coughs. Have a listen and familiarise yourself with the noise, below.


We consult our resident doctors, Dr Bob and Dr Mash, to get the low-down on whooping cough. Read on to learn more about what whooping cough is, the symptoms and how to treat it.


What is whooping cough?

Whooping cough is a bacterial infection that affects the lungs and the tubes that supply the lungs with air. It is highly contagious, and affects all ages. Whooping cough is also known as Pertussis because it is caused by an infection called Bordetella Pertussis. Due to the length of the illness it is sometimes referred to as the 'hundred day cough.' It's spread through the air by coughing and sneezing.


When does whooping cough occur?

It occurs in waves and usually there tend to be peaks, occuring on average every 3 to 4 years. For example, in 2010, there were only 422 confirmed cases in England and Wales for the whole year - but then in 2012, there were over 7,000 confirmed cases. 


What are the symptoms of whooping cough?

Usually whooping cough presents itself as a dry, persistent and irritating cough. You might find you have severe coughing fits. Often this will be followed by a whooping noise, that's why it's called 'whooping cough'. A runny nose, fever and even vomiting after coughing are common symptoms, too.


Whooping cough in babies

Whooping cough can be particularly severe in babies, and is in some cases fatal. In babies under three months, they may not be strong enough to make the distinctive 'whooping' sound between coughs, but may instead may gag or gasp when they cough.


The signs to look out for in babies are:

  • Early symptoms include cold and flu-like symptoms including a runny nose, sneezing and a slight fever
  • After about a week, a dry cough may develop
  • Intense coughing with a distinctive 'whooping' sound between bouts. These can last for up to a couple of minutes and produce thick mucus


What does whooping cough sound like?

The below video, released by Mayo Clinic, illustrates the distinctive sound of a baby girl suffering from whooping cough.

Please remember that some very young children can experience whooping cough without the 'whooping' noise.


How do I know it's not flu?

Regular flu shares some symptoms and similarities but doesn't last anywhere near as long. Whooping cough can last a few months, so no wonder then that its nickname is the 'hundred day cough'. If you're worried that your cough isn't clearing up, go and see your GP. Persistent coughs, especially in smokers, need checking.


How to treat whooping cough

By the time a patient with whooping cough comes to the surgery, the infection has normally cleared up a little and is no longer contagious. However, if it is picked up early enough (the first few weeks), then your GP might give you some antibiotics to make you feel better and stop the infection spreading.

If your doctor prescribes antibiotics for whooping cough then infected adults and children should rest at home until they have finished the five-day course of treatment. Sometimes other family members will also be given antibiotics or a vaccine booster if they've already been vaccinated against whooping cough. Remember to keep young babies away from infected family members as they are the most vulnerable. 

Simple things like getting plenty of rest and drinking lots of fluids will also help. Sometimes young babies can get severe complications and will need to go to hospital.


Is vaccination really worthwhile?

Often adults can get whooping cough if their immunity has decreased, although they tend to get less unwell with it, but it's definitely worth getting vaccinated. This helps protect more people. Also, there's less chance of causing serious complications to a baby if you've had your whooping cough jab.


I'm pregnant, should I be worried?

This is very important - Department of Health guidance brought in in 2012 suggests that all pregnant women should be offered vaccination against whooping cough when they are 28 to 38 weeks. This will not only help you, but also help your baby in its first few weeks before they get vaccinated.


Should my baby be vaccinated against whooping cough?

Babies are vaccinated against whooping cough at two, three and four months, and then again just before starting school (between three and four years old).


Remember, as always, your GP is a good starting point. If you're really worried about your or your child's symptoms, then go to your nearest A&E.

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