What is whooping cough?
Whooping cough, also know as pertussis, is an infectious disease of the airways caused by a bacteria (Bordetella pertussis). It can affect persons of any age and is particularly serious and occasionally life-threatening for children aged under 1 year. Complications include pneumonia, seizures, brain damage and weight loss. It is spread by coughing and develops within 6-20 days (usually 9-10 days) of a person coming into contact with the disease.
What are the symptoms?
The disease often begins with the same symptoms as a “cold”, along with an irritating, persistent cough which gets worse and may last for several weeks.
Bouts of coughing result in breathlessness which causes the characteristic “whoop” on breathing in. This may be associated with vomiting. Adults and infants may not have the “whoop”. Diagnosis is confirmed by a swab from the back of the nose and sometimes a PCR test.
How is it caught?
Whooping cough is caught from the airways secretions of an infected person and by droplets produced by coughing or sneezing. A person is infectious for 3-4 weeks from the onset of the first symptoms.
How is it treated?
An antibiotic (erythromycin) if given early, can shorten the infectious period and reduce symptoms.
If whooping cough is suspected, the person should be seen by a doctor and kept away from others and especially children under one year of age and women in the late stage of pregnancy.
They should be off work, school or preschool until they have taken at least 5 days of a 7 day course of the antibiotic.
If the antibiotic is not given, the person should be kept away from others for 3 weeks from the onset of the cough.
A doctor can advise about treatment of symptoms. The cough is often distressing for preschoolers, but bed rest, plenty of fluids and small bland meals can be helpful in management and may lessen trigger factors for the cough.
Keep in contact with your doctor especially if the illness persists.
How is spread prevented?
Antibiotic treatment for people who have been in contact with whooping cough is aimed at preventing spread to under one year olds who are more likely to develop severe disease.
Where there is a household or preschool with a child under one year at risk because a person has recently been diagnosed with whooping cough, members of the household or preschool may need antibiotics. Contact the local public health service for advice.
When a case occurs in a household where there is a woman in the late stage of pregnancy, all persons in that household should also receive a course of antibiotic to prevent possible future spread to the newborn infant.
What about spread to others?
Immunisation is the most effective means of preventing the disease and controlling it in the community.
Five pertussis vaccinations are given as part of the National Childhood Immunisation Schedule.
These are given free by your local doctor. Immunised children may still develop whooping cough but it is usually not as severe.