Whooping cough was first recognised in the Middle Ages, but it is likely to have existed much longer than that. The first method of immunisation was introduced in the 1940s, and this led to a steep decline in the number of infections. Children are now routinely immunised against whooping cough in Australia, so the disease is no longer common but outbreaks can still occur.
Causes and complications
Whooping cough is caused by bacteria called Bordetella pertussis. It is highly infectious and is transmitted by close personal contact when the bacteria are spread in in droplets expelled by sneezing and coughing. In young babies, some of the complications can include apnoea (when they stop breathing for periods of time), pneumonia, convulsions, coma and brain inflammation and damage.
Early symptoms can resemble those of a heavy cold, such as watery eyes, a runny nose, sneezing and mild fever. The major symptom is the characteristic cough, which can often be followed by a 'whooping' sound. The cough develops gradually and worsens over the first few weeks, becoming both more severe and frequent.
The coughing bouts are usually exhausting and can be so severe they cause vomiting. It can be very distressing to see a baby with whooping cough, as they may gag, gasp and temporarily stop breathing – even turning a bluish colour in the face as they struggle to breath.
The time it takes for recovery varies for each child. Even with treatment, the cough continues after the bacteria have gone, most likely lasting another month or two.
See your GP as soon as possible if you think your child may have whooping cough or seek emergency care if their symptoms are severe. Babies under six months old might have apnoea (a pause in breathing) instead of coughing; if you notice this, contact your doctor immediately.
Treatment options will depend on the baby’s age, severity of symptoms and how long the baby has had the symptoms. Babies under six months old will probably be admitted to hospital and closely monitored, as will older children with more severe symptoms.
Usually, a baby over six months of age can be cared for at home with a doctor’s approval. Antibiotics may or may not be prescribed (depending on whether the child is still likely to be infectious), but they will not stop the coughing, and this will continue for many weeks. While it is upsetting to hear your child coughing, remember that this is how they naturally clear their lungs.
Immunisation is the best prevention for whooping cough. Your child will get free immunisation against whooping cough (pertussis), often in combination with immunisation against other diseases as part of the Australian National Immunisation Program. It’s extremely rare for immunised children to get whooping cough, and if they do the symptoms are likely milder.
Immunity against whooping cough reduces with time. Adults who will be in contact with babies under six months of age should have a booster shot to make sure they don’t pass on the infection since babies of this age aren’t old enough to have completed the immunisation schedule and are still vulnerable to infection. If you’re planning to get pregnant, or already pregnant, you should talk to your GP about your immunisation status. A free whooping cough booster shot is available and recommended for pregnant women in their third trimester which protects both mother and newborn baby.
Urgent careSince whooping cough is a life-threatening disease, do not hesitate to seek urgent care if symptoms are severe. If your child is struggling to breathe or their lips start to turn blue, call an ambulance immediately.