5 Crucial (and Weird) Whooping Cough Facts To Know!

Gram stain of the bacteria Bordetella pertussis.
Image via Wikipedia

As a whooping cough epidemic hits California, you may be asking yourself, “hey, weren’t we all vaccinated for that?” Even as the headlines imply a Victorian-level outbreak of hacking and coughing, perhaps you’re looking around and wondering where, exactly, this epidemic is located. And what you should know about whooping cough to protect you and yours.

Here are some fun, weird, and sometimes worrying tidbits to know about whooping cough. Pass them on to friends and co-workers – because an epidemic of knowledge is a GOOD thing to spread around:

1) Hey, you got vaccinated, and your kids did too – doesn’t that mean you’re protected? Um, no. Pertussis (the medical name for whooping cough) vaccines are actually kind of puny, and don’t last that long. Strange, but true. The original pertussis vaccine schedule was designed to protect the most vulnerable – the very young. So, to get a good baseline level of protection, your baby gets many pertussis shots, one after the other. But even after a solid start of many boosting shots, the pertussis vaccines are only effective for most people for about 5 years. That’s why your kid gets another booster around kindergarten. So before recent changes in recommended vaccinations, most of us lost our solid baby-hood protection around age 10-11. Hence the recent outbreaks. But now, because of outbreaks that are appearing across the country, the CDC has recommended that a pertussis shot be included in every tetanus booster given to every adult. Without it, even if you had a documented case of the disease, your immunity will gradually disappear…

2) I’ve never heard anyone whoop in my entire life. So how can “experts” say there’s whooping cough breaking out all over? Fact is, you don’t have to whoop to have whooping cough. If you want to hear the misery and classic sound of whooping cough, go here. The “whoop” happens when the infected person desperately tries to inhale at the end of a truly miserable bout of uncontrollable coughing. The classic “whoop” sound is believed to be more common in a person who got no vaccinations, or only one as a baby, or has lost all their immunity. Partial immunity seems to mean that people get milder versions of what is, really, a hideous infection. What’s more, the whoop occurs way late – after days to weeks of sickness, as the coughing seems to get relentlessly worse. Pertussis can be found by medical tests, so disease-trackers, even without the whoops, can know who’s getting it, and where.

3) I’m supposed to take antibiotics for a runny nose? You’ve GOT to be kidding me. Whooping cough has a strange and nasty presentation, one that seems designed to fake out everything you’ve ever been taught about how to deal with colds and flu. It begins with a typical runny nose. Then (sneaky sneaky), the runny nose seems to go away after a few days. The cough begins, but it’s not so horrible at first. Kind of like what you’d expect from a typical, seasonal upper respiratory infection. But then, right when you think you should be getting better, the spasms of coughing begin. We’re talking whole-body, snot-running-down-the-face, have-to-leave-the-meeting, holding-your-side, unable-to-catch-your-breath nastiness. These bouts will gradually worsen over time, striking at any moment, often at night, leaving a healthy person bent over, drenched in sweat and gasping. For many many people, this type of coughing hell leads inevitably to vomiting. Even in a hallway of the office, even on a street corner. It’s that involuntary. AND, it goes on and on. For weeks and weeks. THAT’S what it’s like a normal, healthy person. Imagine how this type of thing can affect someone with a touch of emphysema. Or a frail set of chest muscles. Or a frail set of chest muscles. Or a tiny, too-young-to-be-vaccinated baby (warning: graphic and heart-breaking image here). People can indeed die from it, or from the pneumonia that you can get on top of it.

4) Won’t my doctor know if I’ve got whooping cough? Somewhere around weeks two or three, if you despair and go to the doctor, a typical exam will show…nothing. Even a really good doctor is likely to send you home with an inhaler (even if you don’t have asthma) and tell you to try using it to see if the inhaler will “break” the coughing spells. But only a doctor who’s aware of pertussis outbreaks and takes the time to listen to ALL your symptoms and how long they’ve been going on will recognize that what you have is probably whooping cough. Sadly, there’s no medicine to stop pertussis once it’s truly set it. Taking the antibiotics for whooping cough AFTER you’re had it for a couple of weeks (which is when most people drag themselves into see the doctor) does nothing. If you diagnose pertussis in the first week, taking the antibiotics then may reduce how long you are infectious to other people. BUT, keep in mind, there’s hope for the people you know and love! If a person is exposed to a true case of pertussis, and starts to have the runny nose stage – THEN, if you take the appropriate antibiotics in the first 72 hours, you can nip the whole nasty disease in the bud, right there and then (although a recent review of the few studies to support this practice resulted in an “insufficient evidence” to completely verify it works).

So you heard it from me, and I’ll back you up – there is, indeed, despite everything you’ve ever been told by every doctor your entire life, one and only time in medicine when it truly is appropriate and useful to take antibiotics for a runny nose. To kill off whooping cough before it begins.

5) What do you mean, I should get a tetanus shot if I’m a smoker? That’s just crazy. Well, no. Not any longer. Anyone who’s a smoker, anyone with lung disease of any kind, anyone with breathing troubles for any reason – you’re exactly the person who wants to be sure to stay up on your tetanus boosters. Because NOW, with the recent whooping cough outbreaks, your garden-variety tetanus booster comes with a pertussis booster added on! If you’re in a risk group of any kind, you don’t want to let your whooping cough immunity lag.

So spread the word! (and not the germs…).

What do you think? Is whooping cough the sneakiest meanie to hit the streets in a long time? Do you think you had it…and never knew it? Sound off in the comments section. Remember – general medical information is NOT a replacement for medical care – if you have questions, concern or confusion about whooping cough, see your doctor. Doc Gurley is the only Harvard Medical School graduate, ever, to be awarded the coveted Shoney’s Ten Step Pin for documented excellence in waitressing, and is a practicing board-certified internist. You can get more health posts at www.docgurley.com, or jump on the Twitter bandwagon and follow Doc Gurley. Also check out Doc Gurley’s joyhabit and iwellth twitter feeds – so you can get topic-specific fun, effective, affordable tips on how to nurture your joy and grow your personal wellth.

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7 comments to 5 Crucial (and Weird) Whooping Cough Facts To Know!

  • Susan Z

    Good article. I’ve been to 3 different docs, asking specifically if I might have pertussis. (Except for the whoop, every symptom I have is ” textbook” for it) The first, a PA decided it was a sinus infection and gave me augmentin. His M.D. boss told me there was no test for pertussis, whereupon I walked out. The next doc figured it would just go away with time, and it wasn’t pertussis, but did a chest x-ray even though he didn’t “hear anything,” but sure, it is safe to be around my baby granddaughter. The last one a CNP thinks it is swollen bronchi and ordered Symbicort and methylprednisone, but no one even suggested a test to clearly determine what I have, even after I told them my husband has the same thing coming on. Is it because if they actually diagnose it, it means more paperwork or something? 😉 I wish they could prove me wrong; too bad they won’t try.

  • kate

    I started with a “cold” at the end of September. I had mild fever, headache, running eyes and malaise. After a week of this I thought I was better and then the cough started. I have had these fits of coughing, which come on out of the blue, mostly at night and make my face red, my eyes tear and I gag to thet point of vomiting. I have to leave the office or wherever I am and it’s embarrasing. I went to the doctor and was poopooed, sending me home with Tessalon perles and Fluticasone. Haven’t helped. I have had this now for over 3 months and wonder if it will ever stop. Is there a test at this point in the game, I would really like to know if this is what it is, so I don’t continue other treatments.


  • David

    Most “modern” doctors are completely ignorant when it comes to whooping cough. The pertussis bacterium makes it past the brain-blood barrier and “teaches” the brain to spasm your bronchial muscles. Anti-spasmosdics won’t help because this is a smooth muscle and anti-spasmodics for smooth muscles would kill you (think heart, diaphragm, colon: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Smooth_muscle_tissue)

    I went through this nightmare a few years ago and blogged about it here: http://djharris69.tumblr.com/post/48963360431/pertussis-aka-whooping-cough-aka-100-day-cough

    The pertussis toxin is even being studied to treat certain diseases which affect the brain: http://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Experimental_autoimmune_encephalomyelitis

  • Deborah

    I was blissfully in ignorance even though I am a Registered Nurse with a Master’s
    Until…3 days ago when I felt it was time to go to the doctor for “bronchitis” a few coughs into the appointment the smart doctor said you have whooping cough and did a swab of the back of my nose for 20 seconds. I was put on a zpack..cough medication and quarantined to my home. Today a knock on my front door from the Public Health Department confirming my diagnosis. Now the investigation begins and trying to contact all patients that I had close contact with. Ummm how about half of Los Angeles???
    There really needs to be a better way to control this.I am 60 yes old ..active..working..last vaccine was 4.5 years ago. Saw at least 3 docs before being told I may have it and was given cough meds…inhalars…nasal sprays until any thought of pertussis was mentioned. Now the antibiotic is of no help to reduce the cough…I am trying to educate all I came into contact but the response from many is “I had the vaccine” maybe there will be better information out soon.

  • brianne

    That is crazy that in most of the comments im reading that the doctors didn’t know of or do a test. I just took my daughter to her pediatrician, who is awesome btw, because she had a few tell tale symptoms. Everything but the whoop but her wet plehmy cough does seem to be getting worse. Well because I have a 6 month old as well the doctor just gave us an order to take to an outpatient lab to get a swab done where they test for the whooping cough bacteria. Since it is a bacterial infection it wont go away on its own and you and everyone else in your house who was exposed will need a dose of antibiotics. It seemed simple enough and she is still in the very beginning stages. Maybe you just need a good doctor who knows what to looks for.

  • Gemma

    Came across this article when looking for advice about how long im going to be coughing my lungs up for. I have been ill for 6 weeks. It started with what felt like a touch of a cold and then went down to my chest about 2 weeks later. I googled Whooping Cough symptoms and had ALL of them, went to my GP and was given Amoxicillin then told to come back if no better in a week…I went back and was told its probably viral but heres some more, stronger antibiotics (Doxycycline) and if you are still bad in a week come back.
    I went away at the weekend and was MUCH worse. I had an appointment today and after having a coughing fit in front of the dr and telling her how often I was vomiting she instantly went “hold on I wonder…” and has done a blood test for whooping cough and a chest xray! I am 99% sure that the results are going to come back as positive for whooping cough!
    Right now, my chest hurts like hell and I am exhausted and totally fed up of being sick!

  • 10 weeks now and test results from blood is positive to whooping cough ! One doc told me adults don’t get it another said upper respiratory only when I videos myself coughing choking and wrenching was blood test done ! I was whooping etc full txt book case !

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