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March 22, 2023 • read

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How do I know if I have whooping cough?

It may sound like a relic from an earlier time, but whooping cough is alive and well and likely circulating in your community. While you’re probably vaccinated against it, that won’t necessarily prevent you from getting it. Here’s how to spot the symptoms of whooping cough and when to see a healthcare provider for treatment.

What’s whooping cough?

Whooping cough, or pertussis, is a highly contagious respiratory illness caused by the bacteria Bordetella pertussis (B. pertussis). It gets its name from the whooping cough sound — a telltale inhale of breath at the end of a coughing fit that sounds like a “whoop.”

Whooping cough tends to be long-lasting. It can take six to twelve weeks to clear, leaving you with a cough that can last for weeks or months. And, unlike most other respiratory illnesses, it circulates at relatively stable levels throughout the year, peaking only slightly in the summer and fall.

Although most Canadians are vaccinated against it, there are 1,000-3,000 cases of whooping cough every year. This may not seem like a large number, but many cases occur in infants and small children who are more likely to suffer a serious illness.

Is there a test for whooping cough?

Because its initial symptoms like a runny nose, sore throat, and fever are easily mistaken for other illnesses, whooping cough is unlikely to be diagnosed right away. So, how can you tell if you have whooping cough? You’ll likely have to wait until your second week of illness when more telltale symptoms appear.

Since many adults and older children experience atypical symptoms, a nose or throat culture test may be recommended too. This involves nasal swabs or throat swabs taken from the infected person and testing it for B. pertussis bacteria. You may also require a blood test to confirm the diagnosis.

Who’s most at risk for whooping cough?

Anyone can get whooping cough, but thanks to high rates of vaccination, most adults experience relatively mild illness. However, vaccination against whooping cough starts at two months, and immunization isn’t complete until four to six. Without a complete series of vaccines, young children are at risk of more serious illness.

Moreover, children’s small airways are more vulnerable to inflammation, increasing their risk of complications. Consequently, the most severe outcomes are in this age group — about 50% of children under one who contract it require hospitalization.

While whooping cough in babies is severe, young children aren’t the only ones at risk. Unvaccinated and under-vaccinated individuals have a higher chance of experiencing serious bouts of the illness. Additionally, immunocompromised individuals — even if fully vaccinated — are more likely to experience more severe illness and complications.

Since pregnancy produces immunological changes in the body, pregnant women are also vulnerable. As a result, the whooping cough vaccine is one of the immunizations recommended during pregnancy. As an added benefit, it also generates antibodies in the mother that she can pass on to her newborn.

Is whooping cough contagious?

Yes. Whooping cough is a highly contagious bacterial infection of B. pertussis that spreads through airborne droplets. During sneezing or coughing, an infected person generates germs that get into the throat and lungs of those nearby. Transmission can also occur by releasing particles when talking or laughing in close proximity.

Whooping cough has a seven-day to three-week incubation period, so you’re unlikely to develop symptoms for a week or more after exposure. However, you’re contagious from the time you start experiencing symptoms until at least two weeks after coughing begins. This means that you can remain contagious for three or more weeks with untreated whooping cough.

Antibiotics shorten this time considerably, leaving you non-contagious five days after starting them.

While vaccinated and previously exposed individuals are protected from severe illness, immunity fades over time, and vaccinated individuals can contract and spread the illness. Consequently, whooping cough in adults and older children often presents asymptomatically or atypically.

This can make caregivers and family members unsuspecting sources of infection for babies. It’s also one of the reasons why whooping cough circulates so steadily despite high vaccination rates. Along with getting vaccinated, wearing a mask, washing your hands, and keeping as much distance as you can from someone who’s infected is crucial.

What are the symptoms of whooping cough?

Whooping cough can precipitate coughing that can last for weeks or months. You may also experience:

  • Coughing spasms (though many infants and babies may not cough at all)
  • Coughing followed by a sharp intake of breath that sounds like a “whoop”
  • Coughing followed by vomiting
  • Coughing that worsens at night or after eating
  • Seeming well between coughing fits
  • Apnea (periods of not breathing)
  • Cyanosis (turning blue due to a decrease in blood oxygen levels)

How fast does whooping cough progress?

Although they’ve been reported up to three weeks after exposure, signs and symptoms of whooping cough usually take around seven to 10 days to appear after infection with B. pertussis.

Initially, whooping cough presents with nonspecific mild cold or flu-like symptoms. Only around week two do the telltale signs of the illness appear. This stage can last anywhere from one week to 10, and includes more serious symptoms such as coughing fits.

After this acute phase passes, symptoms tend to lessen gradually. However, they can linger for weeks or even months.

What are the stages of whooping cough?

Whooping cough is divided into three phases. The first, or catarrhal phase, lasts for one week or so. It often involves a slight fever and mild cold symptoms. These may include a runny nose, fatigue, mild cough, low-grade fever, and watery or red eyes.

Gradually, coughing worsens as you enter the second, or paroxysmal, phase. Diagnosis usually happens at this point as the illness’ telltale symptoms appear, including coughing fits and a “whooping” intake of breath. The paroxysmal cough is a series of severe and forceful coughs with a single exhale, leading to a gasp for air, causing the classic “whoop” sound with inhale.

Fits can be so forceful that some people pass out or vomit afterwards. These paroxysms can be triggered by respiratory irritants, mist, or steam, or simply by yawning, laughing, or exercising. If left untreated, this phase can last two to three months.

In the third stage of the illness, the convalescent stage, symptoms lessen until they disappear. However, symptoms can take weeks or even months to resolve completely. Contracting another respiratory infection during this time may cause them to reemerge.

How’s whooping cough treated?

Because it can cause serious outcomes for young children, whooping cough shouldn’t be left untreated. You can be contagious for weeks, even with mild symptoms, so if you suspect whooping cough, it’s important to see a medical professional.

The recommended treatment for whooping cough is antibiotics, which can decrease the duration and severity of the illness. Your healthcare provider may also prescribe them prophylactically if you’ve been in contact with a confirmed case.

Can you treat whooping cough at home?

If symptoms are manageable, you can treat whooping cough at home, provided you’re taking your antibiotics as prescribed. If you’re caring for someone with whooping cough, like a child, remember that while they may seem normal between bouts of coughing, they’re still quite sick.

As with other respiratory illnesses, staying hydrated is paramount. Take frequent, small sips of water or oral rehydration solution and eat small meals throughout the day to keep your strength up. While prioritizing rest is important, chronic coughing can make this difficult, leaving many wondering how to stop whooping cough at night.

For starters, you can help to thin and loosen mucus by staying hydrated and increasing the environmental moisture with a humidifier. If this isn’t enough, physical techniques like controlled coughing or postural drainage can help to clear mucus from the airways.

While taking over-the-counter (OTC) cough medicine might be tempting, studies don’t support their efficacy. Worse, OTC cough medicine can be harmful for children under six. Instead, try a teaspoon of honey or a warm cup of tea to soothe an irritated throat.

Finally, while whooping cough can often be treated safely at home, if you or your child has trouble breathing or lips that turn a bluish colour, it’s a medical emergency.

Can you prevent whooping cough?

The DTaP vaccine is about 90% effective at preventing cases of whooping cough during a child’s first four to six years when they’re most at risk for severe outcomes.

While your child might not appreciate the needle, you can breathe easily knowing that vaccine side effects are mild. They mostly include redness and soreness at the injection site and sometimes mild fever, headache, and muscle aches.

Despite its high efficacy and few side effects, the whooping cough vaccine isn’t perfect. Immunity starts to wane after a few years, making booster shots necessary for adults over the age of 18.

Getting the whooping cough vaccine during pregnancy is also recommended. This protects both the pregnant woman and reduces the likelihood that she’ll infect her newborn child before they can be immunized.

What are the complications of whooping cough?

Whooping cough complications can be either short-term or long-term. The most severe side effects are more likely in children under a year. Prolonged cough is one of the more common ones. Additional complications include:

  • Fractured ribs
  • Abdominal wall hernia
  • Broken blood vessels in the eye
  • Urinary incontinence
  • Rectal prolapse
  • Apnea (periods of not breathing)
  • Partially or fully collapsed lung
  • Seizures
  • Respiratory distress
  • Bacterial pneumonia
  • Death

Does whooping cough cause long-term effects in adults and kids?

Most cases of whooping cough resolve without complications. However, more severe cases can have lasting repercussions, especially when patients require hospitalization. In these cases, you may see long-term effects like lung scarring or brain damage.

Children who experience a severe case of whooping cough as infants or babies may have additional difficulties. A small minority of severe cases may be left with lasting consequences such as developmental delays and vision and muscle control issues.

When to see a doctor for whooping cough

If you think you or someone you love has whooping cough, it’s important to see a healthcare provider right away. But the reality is, not everyone has access to a family doctor or same-day appointments. And it can take hours just to see a doctor at a walk-in clinic.

If you need care, we can help. Maple’s a telehealth platform that connects you with Canadian-licensed doctors in minutes from your phone, tablet, or computer, so you don’t have to leave home or wait to see a healthcare provider.

With Maple, you can see a doctor online to assess your symptoms. Since antibiotics are advisable in most cases, they can also provide a prescription to treat your whooping cough if necessary. From there, you can pick up your prescription at a pharmacy near you or have it delivered to your door for free. That’ll help you return to normal life more quickly without worrying about infecting vulnerable people around you — especially your loved ones.

Whooping cough isn’t fun in the best of cases and can be downright dangerous at its worst. If you think there’s a case in your home, speak to a doctor today to help stop whooping cough in its tracks.

This blog was developed by our team and reviewed by a medical professional.

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