Whooping cough (pertussis) care?

Originally Published: September 25, 2009 - Last Updated / Reviewed On: June 25, 2010
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Dear Alice,

I am looking for the best resources on pertussis, for adults and children. My son has a possible diagnosis, but the culture takes weeks for a result. Where can I research supportive care for suspected pertussis?

Dear Reader,

By reading up on pertussis while waiting for your son's test results, you'll be able to help him beat the infection if his diagnosis is confirmed. Bordetella pertussis is a highly contagious bacterium that causes infection in the respiratory system and uncontrollable coughing, also known as whooping cough. Although whooping cough can be particularly dangerous for infants, most people recover well with proper treatment.

Today, most children are immunized against whooping cough with the DTaP vaccine — a triple-punch to ward off diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis. Adults can also receive this vaccine. DTaP is a newer and safer version of the old DTP vaccine, which is no longer given in the US.  

According to the National Institute of Health, whooping cough lasts about six weeks and symptoms may include:

  • Runny nose
  • Low grade fever (102 degrees Fahrenheit or lower)
  • Severe, repeated cough that:
    • Makes breathing difficult
    • Causes vomiting
    • Produces a "whooping" sound when a person breathes in
    • Causes a short loss of consciousness
  • Diarrhea
  • Choking spells in infants
    List adapted from Pertussis at MedlinePlus.

Sounds similar to the flu right? Because the symptoms of whooping cough can mimic influenza or even pneumonia, a lab test is needed to confirm pertussis infection. As you noted, test results can take a while so treatment may be started before the diagnosis is confirmed, especially in infants who are at higher risk for complications.

If your son is not receiving treatment yet, you may want to ask his pediatrician or other health care provider about starting antibiotics like erythromycin or amoxicillin. These medications can help symptoms clear sooner and stop the infection from spreading to other members of your family. The Mayo Clinic recommends the following remedies for anyone recuperating from whooping cough at home:

  • Rest. Keep the bedroom cool, quiet, and dark so the sick person can get extra shut-eye.
  • Stay hydrated. Drink plenty of fluids like water, juice, and soups. Watch out for signs of dehydration in children such as chapped lips, crying without tears, and infrequent urination.
  • Break out the humidifier. Moist air is gentler on irritated lungs and helps to break up respiratory mucus. A warm shower or steamy bath also works.
  • Clear the air. Irritants like cigarette smoke or fireplace fumes can trigger coughing spells.
  • Cover that cough. Keep tissues handy or cough into your elbow or sleeve.
  • Wash your hands. This goes for everyone near the person who is ill. Frequent hand washing with soap and warm water is one of the best ways to keep pertussis and other germs from spreading.
    List adapted from Whooping Cough at MayoClinic.com.

Since whooping cough is more dangerous in young children, infants under six months are usually treated in the hospital to monitor their infection closely. If your son is admitted to the hospital he might receive antibiotics to treat the infection, corticosteroids to reduce inflammation in his airway, oxygen if he has trouble breathing, or intravenous fluids if he can't keep food down. Although a hospital stay may sound scary, most babies recover well from whooping cough after proper treatment.

For more information about pertussis infection and treatments for whooping cough, check out the websites listed above for the NIH and Mayo Clinic. If it turns out that your son has whooping cough, being informed may ease your worries and help you care for him. Hopefully your will son will make a speedy recovery!

Alice