The return of whooping cough

The return of whooping cough

By Christopher Coyne

You may have heard your parents or older relatives talk about it, someone in the family had a horrific case, and it's become part of the family lore. But you probably haven't heard a lot of people talk about whooping cough in the present tense in quite some time, or maybe you have. Whooping cough, which had gone the way of polio in our collective memories', has made a remarkable and alarming comeback in homes and doctors' offices across the country. Healthy Life talked to area family practitioner Dr Marta Canfield of Arnot Ogden Medical Center about the resurgence of this once waning condition: what to look for, how to protect our children, and general information about what physicians refer to as pertussis.

Dr. Canfield suspects there are many factors in today's society that have contributed to reported cases of pertussis increasing dramatically in the past few years. Immunity wears off over time, so those who have had the vaccine in years past but are no longer immune may contract whooping cough. Those affected may not even know they have the disease until after they've already passed it along to a young child or anyone else who hasn't been immunized. There is also the possibility of the disease being reintroduced into the country from immigrants or visitors from countries that don't have the same pertussis vaccination schedules as we do here in the United States.

Whooping cough (pertussis) is a bacterial disease that is highly contagious and can last for months. The bacteria create sticky mucus in the airways that makes it hard to breathe, eat and drink. It's easily spread through a sneeze or a cough of an infected person and is transmitted through droplets from the nose and throat to the mucus membranes of another's mouth, nose or eyes. It's less common, but still possible to contract it from droplets left on a surface and transmitted after one touches that surface and then his nose, eyes or mouth. Symptoms start like a mild cold: runny nose, congestion, sneezing, mild fever and dry cough. But after a week or two that cough can get much worse and result in spastic coughing attacks (sometimes accompanied by a wheezy ‘whoop' sound' - hence the name) that may provoke vomiting, cause red or blue face and, in severe cases, can even result in rib fractures. Infants are particularly vulnerable to more severe cases of whooping cough because their airways are smaller and less developed. Whooping cough in the very young can lead to pneumonia, seizure, encephalopathy and even death.

Talk to your doctor about the proper immunization schedule for your child; usually DTaP is given in the 2nd, 4th, and 6th months - and then later in booster shots. Adolescents and adults who are going to be around infants should also receive booster shots as needed.

Important information about Whooping Cough


  • No vaccination is 100% protective and even if you are immunized you can get the whooping cough, and still pass the bacteria without knowing.
  • Besides the B. Pertussis illness itself, whooping cough can set up the person for secondary infections like ear infections and pneumonia.
  • We immunize to make the illness have less of an impact on our society, especially those that are at high risk for severe complications, such as infants under 1 year of age.
  • How to prevent whooping cough? Hand washing and covering your mouth when you cough and sneeze goes a long way toward preventing the spread of this disease as well as the flu and the common cold.
  • After being on antibiotics for 5 days you are no longer contagious; however, the cough may remain until the cilia in the lungs recover.
  • Getting vaccinated with Tdap - at least two weeks before coming into close contact with an infant - is especially important for families with and caregivers of new infants.
  • Getting the vaccine after being exposed will not help fight off the illness.
  • The cough is often worse at night.
  • It will start out like a common cold with runny nose, sore throat, low grade temperature but then progresses to coughing fits. The person may look fine in between coughing fits.


Marta Canfield, MD
Arnot Medical Services
Addison Primary Care Center
Addison, NY