Don’t let the funny name fool you - whooping cough is a nasty disease that can affect adults, but particularly children and sometimes with devastating effect. As someone who had whooping cough a few years back, I know firsthand the symptoms, signs, and just how troublesome it can be.
Whooping cough is caused by a bacteria called Bordatella Pertussis. It is spread through droplets in the air produced when people with it cough. Ultimately, it causes (somewhat unsurprisingly) a cough, chest infections and even pneumonia in people affected.
Indeed it is the cough of this disease that is so very characteristic - often just hearing the cough itself is enough to make the diagnosis (watch this video at about 43 seconds in: child with whooping cough).
The cough happens in quite nasty little fits - people cough and cough and cough until the run out of breath, and this is followed by a sharp intake of breath, which causes the “whoop” sound. People often have such intense coughing fits that they get to the point of vomiting with them too. I remember being fine for a few hours, then suddenly having hours where i simply could not stop coughing and was gasping for breath - a pretty unpleasant state to be in. Even worse, these fits could be triggered by anything - eating and drinking, a sneeze, even yawning.
Antibiotics are the mainstay of treatment if given early enough. Whilst adults can often cope with the disease and recover with time, infants, and babies in particular, are much more susceptible to its severity. From the 1990s onwards, annual cases of whooping cough in the UK averaged around 300 to 500. However, in 2011 this surged to just over 1000, and sadly in 2012 there were 14 deaths from whooping cough in babies under three months old. There is, and has been for a while, a very effective vaccine for whooping cough. In the UK vaccination schedule it is routinely given at 2, 3 and 4 months, as well as at pre-school age to all children. What this means is that babies under 2 months are more at risk of catching this illness.
That last statement is largely true, however, a key bit of information is that mothers pass their immunity on to babies. This lasts until babies are around 3 months old, at which point they start to develop their own immune systems. So in theory, mums who are immune to pertussis should pass this on to their babies. However, the spike in 2011 demonstrated one main issue: an individual’s immunity to whooping cough wanes as we get older. This sparked a huge drive to make sure that women between 28 and 38 weeks pregnant get vaccinated for whooping cough.
Most pregnant women will go to great lengths to avoid any unnecessary medical intervention - and understandably so. However, in this case, the intended benefit is for the baby, not for mum. Having a whooping cough vaccination in pregnancy boosts your immunity, and allows this to be passed onto the baby, thereby affording them much more effective protection from this horrible infection.
One final thing to note about whooping cough is how long it lasts: the Chinese named this the “Hundred day cough” for the very reason that the cough can linger on for up to 3 months believe it or not. Mine lasted for about this long, but the last month or so was much more manageable!
Ultimately the key point here is this: if you’re pregnant (or know someone who is) make sure you get the whooping cough jab to protect your newborn baby. This disease is something preventable and it is within our power to minimise unnecessary tragedies.
I carry out a full range of routine and private vaccinations for babies, infants and adults of all ages in my Chelsea clinic - please do contact me for more information about specific vaccinations.
This blog can also be found on Dr Mortons - The Medical Helpline