October 1, 2018

Are You at Risk for Whooping Cough? Signs and Symptoms of Pertussis

by Cameron Raley, Infection Prevention Specialist

With whooping cough recently in the news, you might wonder what it is and if you’re at risk for getting it. Here are some tips to keep you and your family healthy.

First off, what is whooping cough?

Known clinically as pertussis, whooping cough is a disease that causes very severe coughing that may last for months. Those who contract whooping cough can cough so hard that they hurt a rib. However, with effective treatment most people recover from whooping cough with no complications.

Whooping cough’s most severe coughing spells can decrease the blood’s oxygen supply and lead to other problems, such as pneumonia. This means the illness can be particularly dangerous in both older adults and young children – especially infants who aren’t old enough to be vaccinated (more on that below). More than half of all cases are in those older than 11 years of age.

What causes whooping cough?

The illness is caused by a bacteria called Bordetella pertussis. It’s a highly contagious disease affecting the lungs leading to a progressively worsening cough from the thick mucus that builds up in one’s airways. The cough typically lasts one to six weeks or more.

The disease is spread through sneezing, coughing or even laughing while in close contact. Those with whooping cough are most contagious during the first two weeks of the illness – many times before one knows they are sick. Symptoms usually develop within five to 10 days after exposure, but sometimes not for as long as three weeks.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of whooping cough may include:

  • Sneezing
  • Runny nose
  • Mild to dry hacking and even severe, uncontrollable coughing
  • Watery eyes
  • Vomiting after a coughing fit

Younger children may see symptoms appear in three stages that start with cold-like symptoms and progress to a worsening cough followed by gradual recovery.

Generally, symptoms can last one to six weeks but can be longer for some individuals.

How is whooping cough diagnosed and treated?

When you seek treatment, your doctor will inquire about your symptoms and likely complete a physical exam. Whooping cough can be challenging to diagnose as people may appear healthy between coughing episodes. Your doctor will most likely prescribe antibiotics. These medications may decrease the length of time you are sick and make you less likely to spread the cough to others.

If you or your child have symptoms of whooping cough:

  • Contact your primary care provider or your child’s pediatrician.
  • Seek convenient walk-in care, like at a Mission My Care Now. These alternatives to urgent care offer the convenience of on-demand care with extended and weekend hours. Lean more about our four Mission My Care Now locations across western North Carolina at missionhealth.org/mission-my-care-now.

If you believe you may have been exposed to whooping cough:

  • Try an initial visit with a doctor online. While the Virtual Clinic is not intended to treat patients with symptoms of whooping cough, and we recommend these patients be seen in person at their doctor’s office or a walk-in clinic for immediate evaluation and treatment, anyone with exposure to whooping cough who may need preventive treatment can have an initial consultation with a doctor online. After completing a brief questionnaire, a provider will respond within one hour to inform you whether a prescription can help. This can help prevent further spread so that patients do not need to go to the doctor’s office to obtain a prescription. Go to missionhealth.org/virtualclinic.

If you or someone you know is being treated for whooping cough:

  • Create a restful and calm environment.
  • Try to control possible triggers of coughing, such as smoke, dust, sudden noises or lights and changes in temperature.
  • Provide the person frequent, small sips of fluids and nutritious foods.
  • Use a humidifier in the room, but ensure it does not aggravate the cough.

Can you prevent whooping cough?

The best way to prevent the spread of whooping cough is to ensure you and everyone in your family is vaccinated – it’s also important for all caretakers to be vaccinated as a way to reduce the spread of disease. Infants receive five doses of pertussis vaccine between two months and five years of age. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) also recommends OB/GYNs prescribe the pertussis vaccine for pregnant women during each pregnancy.

Pertussis is a preventable disease – ensure your immunization records are up to date: children should receive five doses of the pertussis vaccine before their sixth birthday, and teens and adults should discuss pertussis immunization with their primary care physician.

You can get whooping cough more than one time, and you may get it years apart. However, you will be less likely to get it again if you get the vaccination as recommended.

Cameron Raley, MPH, CIC, is an Infection Prevention Specialist for Mission Health.

Learn more about preventing the spread of germs and at missionhealth.org/infectionprevention.