Whooping cough, or pertussis, is a contagious disease categorized by uncontrolled, violent coughing that drives air from the lungs. This coughing results in a "whooping" sound when the person with the illness is finally able to catch his or her breath.
While vaccines for whooping cough have made the disease less common than it once was, concerns about vaccination have caused a resurgence of pertussis. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 10,000 and 40,000 cases of pertussis are diagnosed in the U.S. each year, with 10 to 20 fatal cases on average. This trend is frightening, since the disease is especially dangerous for infants who are too young to be vaccinated for the disease.
In adults, pertussis typically manifests with flu-like symptoms for one to two weeks, followed by the development of a severe cough as described above. Often, the cough may keep you awake at night and even be so severe that it can cause broken ribs. In infants and young children, the coughing may be replaced with bouts of apnea in which the child stops breathing for short intervals. Because the pertussis infection is usually present for at least a week before severe symptoms occur, whooping cough can be difficult to diagnose.
See your doctor right away if you suspect you may have whooping cough, as it is highly contagious and can cause complications like pneumonia. He or she will do a complete physical examination and evaluate your symptoms. Then, the doctor will take a swab of secretions from the back of your throat and test the sample for the presence of bordetella pertussis, the bacterium that causes whooping cough. A blood test may also be used to confirm this diagnosis.
Once whooping cough is diagnosed, your doctor will likely prescribe antibiotics. The earlier pertussis is diagnosed, the easier it is to treat. Children who have been diagnosed may be admitted to the hospital to prevent serious complications, especially when an infant has whooping cough.
The best way to prevent pertussis is by getting the vaccine, called DTaP for children and Tdap for adults. Children are typically vaccinated at the ages of 4, 6, and 15 through 18 months; since infants younger than four months have not yet been vaccinated, it's important for parents and caregivers of newborns to get the vaccine. After the last childhood vaccination, teenagers and adults should have the Tdap booster every 10 years.