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Whooping Cough Symptoms, Causes and Treatments

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whooping cough

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  • Whooping cough or pertussis is caused by the Bordetella pertussis bacterium. When a person with pertussis sneezes or coughs, tiny droplets from their mouth or nose spread through the air and are inhaled by nearby people
  • Symptoms of pertussis include sneezing, occasional to acute cough accompanied by a whooping sound when inhaling, runny nose, nasal congestion and mild fever. Vomiting, bluish discoloration of the skin or mucous membranes, choking, dehydration, loss of appetite and inflammation of the middle ear may also occur
  • Some babies with pertussis may need hospitalization and stringent care from a physician. For children and adults who may not need to be admitted in hospitals, some home remedies that may help include eating small, frequent meals, consuming vitamin-C rich foods, using a cool-mist vaporizer, avoiding mucus-producing foods, staying hydrated and getting rid of home irritants

Coughing fits can be irritating and embarrassing, especially when you're in a public place. There may be instances when you could not control it, but know that coughing is the body's way to get rid of foreign particles or mucus from your lungs.

Commonly caused by viruses, a cough may ease on its own without having to be medicated.1 But when a cough persists or you get a "whoop" as you inhale, it may not be a mild cough anymore — it could be that you have whooping cough.

What Is Whooping Cough?

Whooping cough, also known as pertussis or the 100-day cough, is a highly contagious respiratory disease brought on by the Bordetella pertussis bacterium. Its name was derived from the prolonged and intense coughing fits that produce a whooping sound when inhaling.

A person with pertussis can infect up to 15 people2 when the whooping cough bacteria3 spread from their coughing or sneezing. It generally starts off with cold-like symptoms such as mild fever and occasional cough, but the coughing spells can last for more than two weeks.4

Whooping Cough Causes: How Does It Spread?

As mentioned, the Bordetella pertussis bacterium causes whooping cough. When an infected person coughs or sneezes, the droplets of fluid with the bacteria coming from their mouth or nose spread into the air and get inhaled by people close by. When inhaled, the bacteria will reproduce in the cells of the nose and throat. This process generates toxins that inhibit the clearing of airways in the lungs and windpipe.5

A milder illness that's similar to whooping cough is caused by Bordetella parapertussis. Though parapertussis has a shorter duration and is less common,6 both can be fatal when acquired.7,8

Is Whooping Cough Contagious?

Whooping cough is highly contagious and is a common infectious disease in the United States. A recent peak in the number of cases occurred in 2012, with 48,277 reported cases of pertussis,9 although there was a 37 percent decrease in the number from 2014 to 2015.10 The latest report shows 18,975 cases in 2017.11

Outbreaks in day care centers and schools that happen annually12 may have contributed to the significant increase in the number of pertussis cases in 13- to 16-year-olds. But among age groups, the majority of deaths occurred in babies younger than 3 years old.13

How Long Is Whooping Cough Contagious?

Infected people may likely spread the disease during the first stage of the illness, known as the catarrhal stage, and two weeks after the coughing fits start. This is when coughing fits begin to get worse and the "whooping" sound is produced.14

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Whooping Cough Symptoms You Should Look Out For

Symptoms of whooping cough in adults may be determined through the three stages that an infected person undergoes.15,16

  • Catarrhal stage — Lasting for one to two weeks, symptoms may include sneezing, occasional cough, runny nose and nasal congestion. In some cases, mild fever may occur.
  • Paroxysmal stage — The common symptoms are vomiting, exhaustion, bluish discoloration of the skin or mucous membrane, choking and acute coughing. The whooping sound may also be evident in this phase.
  • Convalescent stage — At this point, the prolonged coughing fits become less intense.

Other symptoms of pertussis may include:17

  • Dehydration
  • Loss of appetite
  • Inflammation of the middle ear

In many cases, babies do not cough but they experience apnea, a condition that turns their skin blue and causes their breathing to temporarily stop.18

What Does Whooping Cough Sound Like?

The whooping cough sound may be characterized by a high-pitched "whoop" when you breathe in. This sound may be heard after coughing fits during the paroxysmal stage of the disease.19 Not everyone infected with pertussis may produce this sound, though, and some may not even cough, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).20

Whooping Cough Diagnosis

If you have been coughing for 14 days or more, it is important to consult with your health care provider to verify if you have pertussis.21 A number of laboratory tests will determine pertussis including culture, polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and serology.22 Other tests that you may undergo are blood tests and chest X-rays.23

Whooping Cough Treatments You May Follow

Babies who have been infected by whooping cough may need hospitalization or attentive care from their physician, as this can become a very serious condition for a baby.24 For children and adults, who may not need to be admitted to a hospital, here are lifestyle and home remedies for whooping cough that you may follow:25,26,27,28

To decrease vomiting, eat small, frequent meals.

Avoid foods that trigger mucus production such as peanuts and wheat. Even healthy foods like raw milk and eggs should be temporarily avoided or minimized while you're suffering from the symptoms.

Consume vitamin C-rich foods such as lime, tangerine, berries, bell pepper and broccoli to boost your immune system. A study published in the Canadian Medical Association Journal29 found that vitamin C, when taken in substantial doses, may help ease coughing fits in the paroxysmal stage of pertussis.

To avoid dehydration, drink at least 70 ounces of pure water per day if you're a 75-kilogram (165 pounds) individual. Refrain from consuming commercial fruit juices and sports drinks, as they not only may contain inflammation-causing sugars, but are lacking in a variety of organic nutrients.

Get rid of irritants in your home that may cause coughing fits, such as aerosol sprays and smoke from tobacco and stoves.

Rest and relax in a cool and quiet bedroom.

Help ease coughing fits by using a cool-mist vaporizer.

A 2014 study found that antihistamines, pertussis immunoglobin and salbutamol may not help ease coughing fits caused by pertussis.30 If you plan to take these medications to help relieve whooping cough, seek your health care provider's advice before doing so.

Also, unless advised by your doctor, cough medicines are not recommended to be taken by people with pertussis, especially children under 6 years old. Coughing is the body's way of clearing airways, which is why it must not be suppressed.31

Whooping Cough Prevention: Is There a Way to Restrain This Disease?

Whooping cough is an airborne respiratory disease that targets the immune system. Simply inhaling the tiny droplets released from an infected person's mouth might put you at risk. Here are some ways to help prevent acquiring this disease:32

  • If you have pertussis, cover your mouth and nose when sneezing or coughing — doing this may help restrain the spread of bacteria in the air.
  • Promote proper hygiene everywhere you go. Pertussis is as contagious as the common cold. As much as possible, wash your hands using mild soap and water. While many hospitals and health care factions also endorse using hand sanitizers, actually many of these sanitizers contain isopropyl alcohol, which can dry your hands and increase your risk of absorbing toxins, so if you do use sanitizers, do it minimally.
  • A 2007 study showed that whooping cough in infants is largely transmitted from household members — including asymptomatic persons who were fully vaccinated33 — who come in close contact with the babies.34 To avoid this, keep infants away from known infected persons, especially those in the early stages of the disease.35
  • Boost your immune system by getting enough sleep and including foods rich in B vitamins, protein, vitamins A, C and D, fiber and probiotics to your diet.

Diet for Whooping Cough: Which Kinds of Food Should You Eat?

Since pertussis is an airborne disease, it is essential to boost your immune system to prevent it. One way to do this is by keeping an eye on what you eat. To help reduce the risk of having pertussis, here are the kinds of nutrients that you may need to consume:

Protein — Commonly found in lean meat, bone broth, fish, eggs, nuts and seeds, protein may help fight infections. However, be mindful of your protein consumption, as too much protein can also be detrimental to your health, putting you at risk of insulin sensitivity and even cancer.

Vitamin C — Good sources of vitamin C include broccoli, berries, leafy greens, citrus fruits and bell peppers.

Vitamin A — Add carrots, squash, sweet potatoes, cantaloupe, organic, pastured eggs, grass fed beef and dark, leafy vegetables to your diet to lower your risk of infection.

Fiber — Help balance your gut microbiome by adding fibrous foods like blueberries, cucumbers, nuts, celery, carrots, banana, papaya and mango to your diet.

Vitamin D — Best acquired through sun exposure, vitamin D may help support your immune response. Raw grass fed milk, wild-caught Alaskan salmon and organic, pastured eggs also contain vitamin D.

Probiotics — Fermented foods are rich in probiotics that help balance the intestinal bacteria. These include fermented vegetables, natto, kimchi, pickles, miso, kefir, tempeh and raw grass fed yogurt.

B vitamins — Boost your immunity by consuming foods with vitamin B1 (thiamin), B2 (riboflavin), B3 (niacin), B5 (pantothenic acid), B7 (biotin), B9 (folic acid) and B12 (cobalamin) such as dark, leafy greens, mackerel, sardines, anchovies, pastured organic chicken, yogurt, cheese and raw, organic grass fed milk.

Croup Versus Whooping Cough: What's the Difference?

Whooping cough, as mentioned, is a respiratory disease caused by Bordetella pertussis. Its notable symptoms are runny nose, mild fever and coughing bouts that produce a "whoop" sound when inhaling.36

On the other hand, croup is another name for laryngotracheobronchitis and laryngotracheitis. Croup is commonly caused by the parainfluenza virus, but respiratory syncytial virus (RSV), rhinovirus, enterovirus, influenza and adenovirus may also lead to croup. It is an infection that interferes with breathing and is common in children because they have small airways.

Croup symptoms include nasal congestion, rhinorrhea and fever. An infected person may develop a hoarse voice, a high-pitched wheezing sound or stridor and a seal-like cough. Similar to pertussis, croup may be fatal to infants, but it is rare.37

Unlike whooping cough, croup may not be as serious. Home treatments may help ease it, and only about 5 percent of infected children will require hospitalization.38

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Q: How is whooping cough spread?

A: Bordetella pertussis, the type of bacterium that can cause whooping cough, spreads when tiny drops of fluid are released from an infected person's mouth or nose when they cough or sneeze. These droplets are then inhaled by other people nearby, leading to infection.39

Q: How long does whooping cough last?

A: The coughing fits caused by pertussis may last for 10 weeks or more.40

Q: How is whooping cough diagnosed?

A: Whooping cough may be diagnosed through medical tests such as culture test, polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test, serology,41 blood tests or chest X-rays.42

Q: Can adults get whooping cough

A: Yes. In fact, adults comprise 25 percent of pertussis cases. They experience milder symptoms compared to children.43

Q: How can you get rid of whooping cough?

A: Lifestyle and home remedies that may help mitigate pertussis include eating small, frequent meals, avoiding mucus-triggering foods such as eggs, milk, peanuts and wheat, consuming vitamin C-rich foods, drinking pure water to avoid dehydration, using a cool-mist vaporizer and eliminating irritants in your home such as tobacco and stove smoke and aerosol sprays.

Q: Can you get whooping cough twice?

A: While it was once believed that once you had pertussis, you would always be immune to it except in rare cases, recent research has found that loss of immunity is more widespread than originally thought. Additionally, it's been found that immunity from a vaccine has even shorter duration.44

Q: Is croup similar to whooping cough?

A: Yes, they are similar in a way that they both affect mostly children or babies rather than adults. But whooping cough is caused by Bordetella pertussis bacterium and is more fatal to babies, while croup is a less serious infection caused by parainfluenza virus.45

Q: Is whooping cough a virus or bacterium?

A: As mentioned, whooping cough is a disease caused by the Bordetella pertussis bacterium.

Q: What are the three stages of whooping cough?

A: The three stages of pertussis are:

  • Catarrhal — Characterized by mild fever, occasional cough and nasal congestion
  • Paroxysmal — Symptoms are "whoop" sound when inhaling, vomiting, exhaustion and acute coughing
  • Convalescent — less intense coughing fits

Q: How serious is whooping cough?

A: Acquiring whooping cough may be severe and fatal especially in babies. They may not cough at all, but instead may experience apnea or temporary breathing pauses. On the other hand, adults generally experience prolonged coughing fits that may lead to rib fracture and blood vessel breakage.46

Q: Is whooping cough worse at night?

A: According to WebMD, whooping cough may be worse at night, specifically in its paroxysmal stage.47

Q: How contagious is whooping cough?

A: Whooping cough is a highly contagious disease. Tiny drops of fluid that carry the bacteria spread in the air when an infected person laughs, sneezes or coughs. When you inhale these drops or when you touch the infected person's mouth or nose, it may be possible to have pertussis.48

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