Whooping Cough in Infants

Children's Health

Apr 11, 2018


While many assume whooping cough (pertussis) is a disease that has already been eradicated, it continues to persist despite researchers’ best efforts. In fact, there have been several outbreaks during the past decade. Though cases of whooping cough are much more infrequent than they used to be – in 2016, there were almost 18,000 cases, compared to more than 120,000 in 1950 – the disease still lingers and primarily affects infants. Continue reading to learn a brief history of the discovery and treatment of whooping cough and how to spot the symptoms in your own child.

The History of Whooping Cough

Whooping cough has likely been around for hundreds or even thousands of years. However, much of the information we have about the illness is fairly recent because it is hard to distinguish from other respiratory illnesses and may have been misdiagnosed in the past.

  • 1578 – A French doctor by the name of Guillaume de Baillou describes “quinte,” a whooping cough epidemic in France. This is the first detailed account we have of the disease in recent history.
  • 1906 – Belgian scientists Jules Bordet and Octave Gengou isolate the bacteria responsible for whooping cough, Bordet-Gengou bacillus. The strain was renamed several times and is now called Bordetella pertussis.
  • 1912 – Bordet and Gengou attempt to make a vaccine, but it is ineffective.
  • 1930s – Researchers Pearl Kendrick and Grace Eldering undergo years of painstaking research to test the validity of various pertussis vaccines. They invent the first truly effective vaccine.
  • 1940 – Kendrick and Eldering’s vaccine is used nationwide.
  • 1948 – The DTP vaccine is created and recommended for children, protecting against a combination of diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis. The pertussis portion is a whole-cell vaccine.
  • 1976 – Whooping cough transmission reaches an all-time low with just 1,010 cases reported in the US for the whole year.
  • 1999 – Researchers recommend a DTaP vaccine for children instead of the previous DTP vaccine. The acellular pertussis vaccine was created to address concerns that the whole-cell version was causing side effects in some children.
  • 2010 – California reports more than 9,000 whooping cough cases, which is the most they have had in more than 60 years. The number spikes again a few years later in accordance with the normal three-to-five-year pertussis cycle.

Whooping Cough Transmission and Incubation

Before the vaccine was created, whooping cough was primarily a children’s disease, and only seven to 11 percent of diagnosed patients were infants. That percentage has since leapt to more than 50, making infants by far the largest age group diagnosed in the US. For this reason, parents and caregivers who have contact with infants need to be especially aware of the way whooping cough is passed to little ones and understand how to prevent them from catching the illness.

Whooping cough is an infection caused by the Bordetella pertussis bacteria and is passed from one person to another through droplets expelled by sneezing or coughing. Once the bacteria are inhaled into your respiratory system, they take hold and release toxins, making it difficult to breathe. While the first few weeks produce symptoms akin to the common cold, a persistent and exhausting cough takes over in the second stage of the illness, earning it the nickname “the 100-day cough” in China.

How Whooping Cough Affects Infants

Babies under the age of one have symptoms distinct from those of older children, teens, and adults. Despite the name of the illness, they may not have a “whooping” cough of any kind. Watch out for these symptoms in your infant:

  • Mild cough
  • Runny or stuffed nose
  • Sneezing
  • Trouble breathing
  • Bouts of coughing (paroxysms) followed by periods of normal breathing
  • Vomiting, especially after coughing
  • Pauses in breathing (apnea)
  • Bulging eyes
  • Blueish skin hue

Unfortunately, around half of infants under the age of one who are diagnosed with whooping cough are hospitalized. Of these babies, one percent will die due to illness complications, which include:

  • Pneumonia
  • Ear infection
  • Dehydration
  • Seizures/convulsions
  • Brain damage (encephalopathy)

It is crucial to either prevent transmission of the illness or catch the symptoms right away to prevent such outcomes. The only way to truly prevent whooping cough in infants is through vaccination. Pregnant mothers may wish to get their Tdap vaccination between 27 and 36 weeks of pregnancy so they can pass on some immunity to their children and better protect them before they are old enough to be vaccinated themselves. It is recommended that infants get a series of five DTaP shots starting at two months old to protect them against whooping cough. They will then need Tdap boosters later in life every 10 years to maintain the vaccine’s effectiveness.

Receive Whooping Cough Treatment at Complete Care

Nothing is scarier than suspecting your child has a serious illness. If that ever happens, it’s only reasonable that you will want a professional opinion as soon as possible. At Complete Care, we provide thorough yet efficient medical services at our urgent care and family medicine facilities, emergency rooms and hospitals so you can be seen without having to wait for hours on end.

If your child is displaying any of the symptoms or complications of whooping cough, it is crucial you bring them in for treatment. Visit one of our facilities in Texas or Colorado Springs today for timely expert care.