Whooping cough, also known as pertussis or the 100-day cough, is a highly contagious respiratory infection. This number is a cause for concern since whooping cough can be deadly, especially in young children. 

What is whooping cough?

Whooping cough, or pertussis, is caused by the strain of bacteria known as bordetella pertussis

Like most coughs and colds, the bacteria spreads through the coughs and sneezes of an infected person. In fact, you can catch the disease just by sharing the same breathing space with someone who has it — similar to the way COVID-19 is spread.

Bordetella pertussis affects the body by clinging on to the cilia (tiny hair-like extensions) that line your nose, throat and windpipe. The bacteria releases toxins⁠ that swell up and damage your airways, making it difficult to breathe. 

You end up with a series of coughing spells that end in a ‘whoop’ sound as you gasp for your next breath of air. That’s why they call it whooping cough. Adult deaths are rare, but make no mistake — whooping coughs can be deadly. 

What are the symptoms of whooping cough?

Woman suffering from whooping cough symptoms and sneezing into a tissue

The first symptoms generally start between 7 to 10 days after exposure to the bacteria.  You might experience cough, sneezing, a runny nose and a fever. Most infected people may not even realise that they’re carrying the disease in the first two weeks of infection, as they’re usually mild and resemble those of a common cold. 

After a week or two, thick mucus accumulates inside the airways and the coughing becomes uncontrollable, accompanied by the trademark ‘whoop’. 

The incubation period of pertussis typically ranges from 3-12 days. There are three stages to the clinical course of a whooping cough infection:

First stage – Catarrhal(one to two weeks)You start to experience a runny nose, fever, coughing, sneezing.The symptoms are a lot like the common cold.This is the stage where you’re the most contagious.
Second stage – Paroxysmal(one to six weeks)The cough worsens. You experience uncontrollable bouts of coughing. The coughs are followed by a long deep breath that creates a high-pitched ‘whoop’ sound.This period may last up to 10 weeks.
Third stage – Convalescent(two to three weeks)The cough starts to lessen. This is a period of gradual recovery. You are more susceptible to other respiratory infections, which can exacerbate the symptoms of pertussis and recovery may take longer.You are generally no longer contagious during this stage.

It’s important to be vigilant and treat these symptoms early before they escalate. If you’re showing signs of respiratory or flu-like symptoms, and have recently come into contact with someone who has whooping cough, seek treatment from a doctor immediately. MyDoc’s COVID-19 Clinic can help assess your risk, address your concerns and help allay your fears.

What are the complications of whooping cough?

Pertussis can cause serious and potentially life-threatening complications in infants and young children, especially those who have not received all the recommended vaccines:

  • Pneumonia
  • Seizures
  • Apnea (temporary stoppage of breathing)
  • Brain damage (as a result of lack of oxygen in body from severe outbreaks of coughing or possibly from Pertussis toxin)
  • Death

As an adult or an adolescent, complications are usually less severe, especially in those who received pertussis vaccines. The most common complications are:

  • Weight loss
  • Urinary incontinence
  • Rib fractures from coughing
  • Syncope (fainting or passing out)

The paroxysmal stage of Pertussis is characterized by recurring intense episodes of coughing. During these coughing episodes, you may experience the following symptoms:

  • Vomiting
  • Face turning red or blue
  • Appear to be struggling to breathe or noticeable pauses in breathing
  • Inhalation that comes in the form of a high-pitched ‘whooping’ sound

If you see this happening to you or your child, consult a doctor immediately.

How to treat whooping cough?

Woman doing a consultation on a digital healthcare platform with a doctor for her whooping cough symptoms

1. See a doctor

The best way to treat a whooping cough is to seek help early. See a doctor if you or child have prolonged coughing spells; and/or you or someone around you might have whooping cough.

Antibiotics are most effective in treating whooping cough when they’re given in the early stage, before coughing spells start.

But even if antibiotics are started at a later stage, they’re still important because they can stop the spread of the pertussis infection to others. Hence, as a precaution, family members of an infected person should also be treated with antibiotics. 

2. Self-care remedies

To help speed recovery, here are several self-care remedies that you can do: 

  • Place a humidifier in the bedroom
  • Avoid smoking at home
  • Clear the home of dust particles, fur, ash or other irritants
  • Avoid sudden changes in temperature
  • Rest as much as possible
  • Drink plenty of fluids
  • Eat smaller meals to avoid vomiting
  • Cover your mouth when you cough, wear a mask if necessary
  • Wash your hands regularly to prevent transmission
  • Seek advice from a doctor or healthcare professional on the use of cough medication

The treatments mentioned are suitable for adults and adolescents. If you have an infant or a young child who has whooping cough, they are more likely to be hospitalized as they are at greater risk of developing severe complications.

Should you get a vaccination for whooping cough?

Infographic on what you need to know about whooping cough vaccination

Thankfully, whooping cough can be prevented through vaccination. Getting a vaccination early is the best preventive measure against this disease. 

The vaccination is usually administered through a combination injection, “DTaP/HIB”. This vaccination protects you against:

  • Pertussis
  • Diphtheria
  • Tetanus
  • Hib (haemophilus influenza type B)

The DTaP/HIB injection is usually given to babies at three months of age, and repeated at four and five months of age. A booster will be given at 18 months of age. Expectant mothers are also given the DTaP/HIB vaccination between 27 through 36 weeks of their pregnancy.

Even though vaccination is a preventive measure against whooping cough, in some rare cases, you can still develop it after getting your shot. 

The vaccination provides a good level of protection within the first two years of injection, but its effectiveness decreases gradually over time. Most people would have their last DTaP booster shot at 11 to 12 years old, based on the National Childhood Immunisation Schedule

After that, booster shots should be administered once every 10 years. You may check with your doctor on your next medical check-up.

Find out why regular medical check-ups in Singapore is important in the prevention of chronic diseases here.

What are the side effects of the whooping cough vaccination?

Before you schedule your vaccination appointment, you should be aware of the potential side effects of the whooping cough vaccination. Here are some of the more common reactions you may experience:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Fatigue
  • Tenderness, redness and swelling at the injection area
  • Symptoms may last up to two days

For most, whooping cough vaccinations will be painless and fuss-free. However, in extremely rare cases (one out of a 100,000), there can be a serious reaction to the dosage. These rare cases usually occur in:

  • Children with a history of seizures
  • Children with a past reaction to the vaccine
  • Children with a fever before the vaccine is given

Despite these potential complications, the benefits of a whooping cough vaccination far outweigh the cons. If you’re keen on getting a vaccination to protect yourself and your loved ones, talk to a doctor or visit MyDoc Patients page to get in touch with a healthcare professional.

Learn more about how telehealth consultation in Singapore works with MyDoc. 

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