What Is Whooping Cough?

Find out why this disease is making a comeback and how you can prevent it.

Rob Lamberts, MD,
July 11, 2012
Episode #057

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This is an unnecessary article. It’s unnecessary because the disease I am going to talk about can be prevented. This disease affects infants and children, and it kills. I am talking about whooping cough, also known as pertussis.

What Is Whooping Cough?

Pertussis is an infection caused by a bacteria named bordetella pertussis. The infection is spread through the air when a person coughs, which means that it is easily spread from an infected person to a susceptible one.

What Are the Symptoms of Whooping Cough?

A classic infection with pertussis goes through several stages:

Stage 1: Incubation:  The incubation stage is the time when the infection is present but before symptoms show up, and it’s generally 7-10 days. This long incubation phase makes it difficult to tell where a person got the infection

Stage 2: Catarrhal: Catarrh comes from a greek word meaning “to run down,” and is just a fancy way of saying a person has a runny nose. I guess calling it the “snot phase” wouldn’t sit well with civilized professionals. This phase lasts 1-2 weeks, and looks pretty much like a common cold.

Stage 3: Paroxysmal: A paroxysm is a sudden violent attack of something, and in the case of pertussis it refers to sudden, severe episodes of coughing. This phase is what gives pertussis its common name, whooping cough. The infected person has long episodes of coughing, followed by a long, raspy “whoop” when they finally breathe in.   The person gags, has difficulty catching their breath, and sometimes vomits from coughing so much. Untreated, this phase can last for a long time, from 2-6 weeks, with the cough being worst at the start of this phase.

Stage 4: Convalescent: In this phase, the person slowly recovers from the infection, but still has a milder persistent cough.

What Are Other Symptoms of Whooping Cough?

But much of the time, the presentation of pertussis doesn’t follow this classic course. There are two main ways people can deviate from this:

Atypical symptoms in adults: In adults, whopping cough can sometimes cause just a dry and persistent cough, although they can still have a milder “whoop” with the cough. The reason for the milder symptoms is probably because adults have larger airways than kids, and because most adults have some immunity to the infection.

Atypical symptoms in infants: Sometimes infants, especially younger infants, have a limited catarrhal stage, and less whooping with their cough. The bad news is that they have something more serious: apnea. Infants infected will have periods where they stop breathing. That is why pertussis has been one of the suspects for sudden infant death syndrome, or SIDS. 

Pertussis is deadly, especially to infants under six months of age. You may have heard in the news lately about an epidemic in California which has claimed the lives of seven infants so far.