Whooping cough

Whooping cough is the common term for pertussis, an extremely infectious bacterial infection. When infected with pertussis the sufferer has violent attacks of coughing, with a characteristic ‘whoop’ caused when you try to take a breath in during a coughing attack.

This infection can affect anyone, but is particularly dangerous when infants get the infection as their air passages are so tiny that their breathing may stop during a coughing attack. This means that they may need to be hospitalised to monitor their breathing, particularly if under one years old. 

Most children are immunised against whooping cough before going to school, if their immunisations are up to date according to New Zealand’s immunisation schedule for children.

Older children may be offered a free “booster” vaccination for whooping cough and other serious life threatening diseases generally aged about 10 or 11. Adults can also have booster vaccination against whooping cough, and this is particularly important if you are around pregnant women, are pregnant yourself, or are commonly around infants. At the moment New Zealand has an outbreak or epidemic of whooping cough so it is important that your immunisations and those of your family are up to date.

Early symptoms or whooping cough are similar to having a cold, except that the cough is usually dry – no phlegm is produced. Coughing fits may become severe and it is not uncommon to cough until you vomit. The condition has also been called the 100 day cough, so symptoms may persevere for some time.

Whooping cough is highly infectious and is usually passed from person to person through droplets containing the bacteria moving through the air, often at high speed from coughing around uninfected people. 

Hand hygiene is very important whenever anyone has any infection, particularly one spread so easily. People with a cough should always cover their mouth when coughing to prevent expelling infected air and fluid. After coughing, always wash your hands thoroughly with soap and water, drying your hands completely with disposable paper towels to prevent other people accidentally using the same towels as someone with an infection. Antiseptic hand rubs are helpful if used between hand washes, but should not be relied upon to totally prevent the spread of injection.

Treatment for whooping cough is usually specific antibiotics if treatment is started early enough, so it is important to see your doctor at once if you suspect pertussis infection. Other treatment is generally for the symptoms of whooping cough, such as decongestants for runny nose and pain relieving medicines for fever. Cough mixtures are generally not helpful so should not be used.

It is also important to keep well hydrated so ensure that if you have been diagnosed with whooping cough then keep up your fluid levels by drinking plenty of water.

If you suspect you or one of your family or friends have pertussis then consult your community pharmacist as they will be able to give you advice, as well as products to treat the symptoms of this distressing condition, and also to refer you to your doctor for urgent treatment if necessary. Your pharmacist can also advise you about immunisation for you, your family and those you are in contact with, particularly during the whooping cough epidemic currently affecting New Zealand.