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Whooping Cough in Infants

Updated on September 20, 2013
Whooping Cough in Infants
Whooping Cough in Infants | Source

Many of you have heard a great deal about whooping cough and its danger to infants with all of the commercials offering parents warnings. You may have heard more about it by its other name, pertussis. This is the cough sickness that has been increasingly taking so many infant lives in the last decade.

Before a vaccine was available for the whooping cough in the 1930s, the illness killed around 5,000 to 10,000 people in the United States each year, from infants to adults. The number of cases in infants however, has been ever increasing since the 1980s, reaching epidemic levels in some states. Over 27,000 cases of whooping cough were reported in the US in 2010, but some experts believe the actual number was much higher.

The main reason for this is simply because of the lack of awareness. Just like nobody worries about diphtheria or the Black Plague anymore, because of the regular vaccines that have put into place, the whooping has all but been forgotten over the last few decades assumed to have been taken care of.

What this really means is that people stopped getting the vaccine for it. One person contracted it and spread it to another, and then another. Because it just looks like a bad cold, nobody worries about it. You really can’t do anything about a cold right? In fact, the doctor just sends you home and tells you to rest and drink a lot of liquids, therefore it’s not diagnosed, and therefore not reported.

But this is huge for you if you are pregnant or have a little one as more and more families are losing their small infants shortly after birth due to an illness that could have been prevented. Read on to find out more about what it really is, what you should be looking for, and what you should do should your infant get it.

What is Whooping Cough?

Whooping cough (pertussis) is an infection of the upper respiratory system caused by bacteria. It is typically characterized by severe coughing spells, supposedly ending in a "whooping" sound when the individual breathes in. Whooping cough is very contagious.

It’s not what you might think though. Most people expect to hear their small babies make a “whooping” sound when they cough, but they don’t actually make that noise. (The Bump) They simply aren’t strong enough at so small a size to bring that sound out of their lungs. That symptom is normally seen in teenagers and adults with whooping cough.

Whooping cough usually affects mostly infants before they're adequately protected by immunizations; younger than 6 months old. (Kids’ Health) It’s not quite as common in teenagers and adults, as many of them have been previously vaccinated, and have stronger immune systems than infants.

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What Does Whooping Cough Look Like?

Whooping cough starts out looking like the common cold; a runny nose, congestion, sneezing, a mild cough, and maybe a fever. But after 1–2 weeks, severe coughing can begin. Whooping cough can last up to 10 months. The symptoms are pretty nonspecific, and therefore doctors don't always catch it, assuming it’s just a cold and missing the diagnosis. (WebMD)

Although many infants who become infected with whooping cough will develop the characteristic coughing episodes, strangely enough, not all will. In fact, sometimes infants don't cough or whoop at all, as older kids do. Instead, infants may simply look as if they're gasping for air. They may get a reddened face and could actually stop breathing for a few seconds during particularly bad spells. (Kids’ Health)

Regardless of other symptoms, if your baby is struggling to breathe, seen by a red face, the skin around the ribs being sucked into the ribs, or purple or blue lips, rush him or her to the emergency room right away for help. Don’t try to diagnose anything.

What to Do to Prevent Whooping Cough

-Get yourself and your whole family vaccinated

-Make sure that everyone is getting a healthy diet

-Make sure everyone is getting enough sleep

-Get everyone outside on a regular basis for plenty of exercise

-Visit the doctor regularly for a yearly check-up

-Call the doctor immediately if you think someone might have contracted it

How Do I Know if My Baby has Whooping Cough?

At first, you might notice a fever, a runny nose, sneezing, a mild cough and watery eyes, all typical of the common cold. This makes it easy to dismiss altogether.

However, after about a week, a child with whooping cough will typically cough for 20 or 30 seconds nonstop and then struggle to breathe before the next coughing spell starts. During these coughing episodes, which seem to happen more often at night, your infant's lips and nails may turn blue or purple from lack of oxygen. (BabyCenter)

It may also cause your baby to vomit or his or her skin to turn red or purple from respiratory distress. If you spot these signs or suspect whooping cough for any reason, call your doctor right away. A laboratory test may be done at the hospital, which involves taking a specimen from the back of the infant's throat (through the nose), to verify whether or not it is whooping cough for sure.

The Specific Dangers of Whooping Cough for Infants

This illness can be very dangerous for babies under a year old, who are especially susceptible to complications such as pneumonia, convulsions, brain damage, and even death. Some of these complications may include pneumonia, dehydration, breathing difficulties, low blood pressure or even kidney failure.

There's even a possibility that a baby or toddler could have convulsions, leading to brain damage. (BabyCentre) The list of possible complications is endless. If your baby has any trouble breathing, or even looks like he or she is struggling for air, call 911 or take her to the nearest emergency room. Also take her to the ER immediately if she has persistent vomiting, seizures, or signs of dehydration.

Illness in infants is scary because you never know whether or not it’s serious, and it can get that way fast. Infants cannot tell you where they are hurting or help to fix the problem themselves. It’s better to be safe than to find out that you could have done something later.

Whooping Cough in Infants
Whooping Cough in Infants | Source

Did I Do Something to Cause it?

Absolutely not. People get sick, and you cannot completely prevent the spread of germs. Whooping cough spreads through close contact with bodily fluids, so it's easily spread through people living in the same household, or sharing other close quarters together, such as office buildings, classrooms, and day cares, as with any other illness.

It can also be spread through coughs and sneezes (especially when the individual does not wash his or her hands), or anything that spreads respiratory secretions. (WebMD) You may have it and not even know it because it usually just looks like a cold, or possibly a bad flu in adults.

It’s likely that many adults have had it and worked through it on their own without ever having known the truth. You might even consider sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and even other visiting friends that might have these symptoms, because it can be spread by coughing, sneezing, and even laughing. In many individuals, whooping cough may be present, and even contagious, without having any symptoms. This is why it’s so critical that everyone coming into contact with your little one have the vaccine.

What Can I Do to Help My Baby Get Better?

Thankfully it's just a bacterial infection, so it can be treated with antibiotics. A doctor will most likely prescribe erythromycin. With younger kids and babies, the doctor may simply just ask you to try to keep them calm and not agitated or running around. A humidifier will also help as breathing moist air will make it easier for them to breathe and will help to open breathing passageways.

In the worst case scenario, infants with a severe case of whooping cough may require hospitalization, and possibly in intensive care. It can be serious enough to require intubation and ventilation, in which a breathing tube is inserted into the throat, both to protect the airways and to assist with breathing until they can recover from the infection.

Because whooping cough in babies is so dangerous (it can be fatal), it’s extra important that you immunize your little one right away. You will also want to roll up your own sleeve and urge everyone else in your house (including your babysitter) to do the same as it is very contagious. Though infants can’t be vaccinated in the first two months of life, there’s plenty you can do to keep your baby (and the rest of your family, for that matter) healthy. (What to Expect)

Like you would for any other illness, by keeping everybody healthy with a balanced diet, plenty of exercise and sleep, and keeping their hands clean, everybody will be as prepared as possible to fight off sickness when something like this hits.

Whatever you do, no matter how bad you want to, don't give your infant a cough suppressant unless your doctor recommends it. Coughing is what the body naturally does when it needs to clear the lungs of mucus. If you suppress that reaction, you may be hindering your child's ability to heal. A cough suppressant is only a stop gap measure anyway. You don’t want to simply suppress the symptoms of this illness, this must be addressed directly. The consequences could be very dangerous.

Whooping Cough in Infants
Whooping Cough in Infants | Source

What Can I Do to Prevent it in the First Place?

The best way to prevent this from ever happening is to get vaccinated. Pregnant women especially need the whooping cough vaccine. Talk with your doctor about getting the whooping cough shot while you’re still pregnant to protect both yourself and your baby. This vaccine is called the Tdap vaccine.

After you get the shot, your body will create protective antibodies (proteins produced by the body to fight off diseases) and pass them off to your baby as well. This way they already have a protective barrier from this illness before they are old enough to get their own vaccines.

These antibodies will also protect your baby from some of the more serious complications that come along with whooping cough, such as pneumonia (lung infection) and encephalopathy (disease of the brain). (CDCP)

For kids, vaccinations start at 2 months. They get the whooping cough vaccination along with their diphtheria and tetanus shots. And then they get additional doses at 4 months and 6 months of age. Even before all of the vaccines are done, your baby still has a small chance of coming down with whooping cough, because the vaccine isn't 100% effective. As a precaution, young babies should be kept away from anyone with a cough.

There are many scary illnesses that could keep you up at night in regards to your new baby. However, with the right vaccines, a regular yearly doctor check-up, an ounce of prevention, and some good healthy habits, you can ensure that you, your baby, and the rest of your family are safe and healthy all year round.

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    • thewritingowl profile image

      Mary Kelly Godley 3 years ago from Ireland

      Very detailed and well written article about the potential dangers of the Pertussis Bacteria. I had the Whooping Cough myself as a baby which I caught from my older sister (even though she had already been vaccinated against it a few years before that).

      I was very ill and hospitalized for quite a while so there is no question that the Whooping Cough can be very dangerous and even fatal.

      However there is also a lot of scientific evidence documented about the adverse effects of some vaccines, that I think all parents should be aware of before making an informed decision one way or the other.

      There are a also a group of children who are particularly vulnerable to suffering adverse effects to vaccines ( often the Pertussis Vaccine) which you do not become aware of until you do your own scientific research.

      But of course its all down to individual choice too and I respect the fact that every parent will have to make their own decision on what they believe is best for their own child. Link to article about documented cases of Pertussis and adverse reactions here: http://hubpages.com/hubtool/edit/3743252

    • VVanNess profile image
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      Victoria Van Ness 3 years ago from Prescott Valley

      Thank you for the great reply and article link! I'm glad you liked the article!

    • thewritingowl profile image

      Mary Kelly Godley 3 years ago from Ireland

      You are welcome.

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