Children’s Health

Whooping Cough: a highly infectious bacterial infection

Whilst many believe that whooping cough is an illness of days gone by, it is in fact a cyclical disease with the number of cases thought to peak every 3-4 years.  According to the NHS, there were 9,711 confirmed cases in England and Wales during 2012, compared to 4,835 in 2013.


Whooping cough, or pertussis, is a highly infectious bacterial infection which attacks the lining of the airways, in particular the trachea and the bronchi.  Symptoms begin with cold-like signs such as a runny nose and sneezing, a dry cough and sore throat, and a slightly raised temperature.  Over roughly a 2 week period, the cough will progressively worsen, and will develop into severe coughing bouts, with the characteristic ‘whooping’ sound made the child gasping for air between attacks.  This can often lead to the child turning red and really struggling to catch their breath.


Whilst anybody of any age can contract whooping cough, it is generally far more serious in babies and young children, and it is particularly important to watch out for symptoms in these age groups as the early warning signs can be slightly different; rather than the usual strong cough, babies may struggle to breathe, or even stop breathing.  It is crucially important to seek medical attention at the first sign of the disease in order to get treatment immediately, and help to prevent complications, some of the most serious of which include pneumonia, seizures and even brain damage.


If your child contracts whooping cough, they are infectious to others from their first symptoms, right up to about 3 weeks from the date of their first signs.  A 5 day course of antibiotics may be prescribed by your GP in order to stop your child being infectious to others, but this rarely brings about any significant improvements in the person with the cough.


The best method of fighting this disease is through prevention, and this comes in the form of vaccination, which is offered to all pregnant mothers between 28-38 weeks, with the optimum time being between 28-32 weeks.  Vaccinations should then be routinely given to all children at 2, 3 and 4 months of age, and then again before school entry.