A guide to whooping cough

A guide to whooping cough

There are many different causes of coughs and one of these is an infection called pertussis. Better known as whooping cough, it can be a very unpleasant and, in some cases, dangerous illness that affects people of all ages. But what exactly is this infection and what causes it? Keep reading for the answers to these questions and more.

What is whooping cough?

Whooping cough is an infection of the breathing tubes and lungs caused by a specific type of bacteria. Patients often suffer uncontrollable and violent coughing fits that can make it difficult to breathe. People of any age can contract whooping cough and it is especially dangerous for infants and young children, sometimes resulting in hospitalisation and even death.

Pertussis is highly contagious and quickly spreads between people. Patients are infectious from around six days after they start to experience cold-like symptoms and for up to three weeks after they start coughing, although this time period can be reduced if people start taking antibiotics within three weeks of developing a cough[1].

What causes whooping cough?

Whooping cough is caused by a type of bacteria known as Bordetella pertussis. These microbes attach to small hair-like structures called cilia located in the upper respiratory tract. From there, they release toxins that harm the cilia and result in swelling of the airways.

When an infected person sneezes, coughs or laughs, they can spread the bacteria to others. Often, babies who become infected by whooping cough catch it from their parents, siblings or caregivers.

Because whooping cough is caused by bacteria, the treatment is a course of antibiotics. These medicines don’t always relieve symptoms, but they help to reduce the risk of the infection spreading.

What are the symptoms of whooping cough?

Whooping cough symptoms don’t develop immediately after infection. It can take around five to 10 days, or sometimes even longer, for the signs to appear.

In the early stages of infection, it can be difficult to know if you are suffering from this illness or you simply have a common cold that can be treated with home remedies such as honey and lemon drinks or or anaesthetic and antiseptic products like Chloralieve’s original throat lozenges[2]. You may experience a mild cough, runny nose and fever. However, if you have pertussis, within a couple of weeks the cough is likely to become drier and more persistent, and it could make breathing difficult.

If your cough becomes severe, it can trigger further symptoms such as vomiting, dehydration, and purple or blue skin around the mouth. Coughing tends to come in bouts that last for a few minutes at a time, and it is often worse at night[1].

What does whooping cough sound like?

The illness gets its name from the whooping sound that some patients make when they gasp for breath between coughs. This is most common in children who have the infection. It is less likely to happen in infants and teenagers.

When should children have the whooping cough vaccine?

The pertussis vaccine is an effective tool to help reduce the risk of children contracting whooping cough. This shot is routinely administered as part of the 6-in-1 vaccine when infants are two months, three months and four months old, and in the 4-in-1 booster vaccine when children reach preschool age[1].

If you are not sure if you want your child to be given this vaccine, it is a good idea to speak to a healthcare professional, such as your GP or a health visitor. They will be able to give you information on this topic.


[1] https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/whooping-cough/

[2] https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/common-cold/