After the recent press on whooping cough we asked one of our resident GPs, Dr Emily Potter to give us the low-down on the condition. A really important read for those with little ones. 

Whooping cough has been topical in the press this week on the back of an increased number of incidences reported within the UK ( “Whooping cough outbreak spreads to very young babies”, 27th July 2012).

What is whooping cough?

Whooping cough, otherwise known as pertussis, is a highly infectious illness that affects the respiratory tract. It can affect people of all ages yet tends to have a more serious impact on babies and young children.

The illness is characterised by a barking (whooping) cough.  The ‘whoop’ cough is often accompanied by vomiting.  In very young infants, they may not develop the characteristic whoop, but may get severe coughing spasms.

There are 3 main stages of the illness:

  1. Catarrhal early stage – mild, dry cough, possible runny nose and possible high temperature. The cough develops into a more chesty cough over the next few days.
  2. Paroxysmal stage – usually 10-14 days into the illness the child develops the characteristic barking cough. Coughing occurs in intense bouts (paroxysms)
  3. Convalescing stage. Bouts of coughing are less frequent. However, the cough can last up to 3 months.

How do you contract whooping cough?

Whooping cough is spread via respiratory droplets, and as such can be spread easily to close contacts such as household members.

It is important to remember that whooping cough is still relatively rare.

Is whooping cough treatable?

Antibiotics may be given in the early stages of the illness. The antibiotics help to prevent the spread of infection. Your GP will assess if your child needs an antibiotic treatment or in some severe cases, hospital admission. The majority of hospitalisations with whooping cough occur in infants under 6 months.

Most babies and children make a full recovery from whooping cough.

However, there is a higher incidence of complications and death in the very young. Serious complications include convulsions, lung damage, pneumonia and brain damage.

Do adults get whooping cough?

Yes. In adults the condition involves an unpleasant cough but it does not usually lead to serious complications.

How do I prevent my baby contracting whooping cough?

The good news is that in this country we offer a comprehensive vaccination program that includes vaccination for petussis at 2,3, and 4 months of age with a booster at 3-5 years. (See baba’s red book for schedule).

Since the 1950s, and the introduction of the vaccination program in the 1950’s, the number of cases has fallen from over 120,000 to only a few hundred a year.

The Health Protection Agency (who monitor the spread of the infection and number of incidences of such conditions) has warned that we are seeing an increase in the number of cases reported in very young babies. So far in 2012, there have been over 2,400 cases reported, as opposed to approximately 400 in the same period last year.

By vaccinating infants at 2 months, (ie. After the 8 week baby check) not only are they protected at the earliest opportunity but other members of the household will also be protected from potential spread of infection.

What is in the vaccine?

The vaccine is made from a highly purified selected component of the Bordetella pertussis organism. They are inactivated and DO NOT contain live organisms and CANNOT cause the disease against which they protect.

The vaccination is only given in combination with Diptheria and Tetanus.

What happens if a member of my family comes into contact with someone with whooping cough?

If your child or any member of your family comes into contact with someone with whooping cough, your GP may decide to offer antibiotics or a booster vaccination.

If your child has whooping cough they need to be kept away from nursery or school to prevent the spread of infection until they have completed 5 days of antibiotics.

Similarly, if an adult contracts whooping cough, they should stay away from work until they have had a 5 day course of antibiotics.

If you are concerned you or a member of your family has whooping cough you must contact your own GP as soon as possible.

References and Further information:

This information was collated from the HPA website and the information resources below. Further information can be found on Patient, the NHS website and The Health Protection Agency.

Dr. Emma Potter is currently working as a registrar in general practice in south London. (MBBS BsC DFSRH)