How Is Whooping Cough Different from the Usual Cough and Cold?

    How Is Whooping Cough Different from the Usual Cough and Cold?

    Coughs are probably one of the most common symptoms shared by several conditions. Oftentimes, a cough is a symptom of an illness that just comes and goes without any need for treatment. But when is it a symptom of a more serious disease, such as whooping cough? And what makes a whooping cough distinct from a regular cough? Find out here.

    What Is Whooping Cough?

    Whooping cough, or pertussis, refers to a highly contagious respiratory infection caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis. This bacteria attacks the lining of the respiratory tract where the first symptoms generally occur 7 to 10 days after infection. These symptoms include a mild fever, runny nose, and cough. In most cases, the cough progresses to a severe hacking cough, accompanied by whooping cough. As a result, those with pertussis may find it difficult to breathe.

    Pertussis can transfer from one person to another primarily through droplets expelled from the coughs and sneezes.

    Whooping cough is particularly harmful in babies and children, in which it is a leading cause of illness and death. Individuals are most contagious three weeks after the cough begins, and many children who get the infectious disease have coughing spells that last four to eight weeks.

    Doctors use antibiotics to treat the infection. However, if the infection is not treated immediately, it may result in further complications like pneumonia, seizures, and other brain diseases.

    Who Is at Risk for Whooping Cough?

    This particular kind of cough may affect anyone at any age, but the following people are at a higher risk of contracting the disease:

    • Babies under six months of age who are not yet fully vaccinated
    • People who are living in the same household as someone who has whooping cough
    • People who have not received their booster shot in the last 10 years

    Babies are most vulnerable to serious diseases. They are more likely to be hospitalized or die as a result of whooping cough. Adults and older children commonly experience milder infections.

    Signs and Symptoms of a Whooping Cough

    Initially, the signs and symptoms are quite similar to a common cold that can last for 1 to 2 weeks:

    • Runny nose
    • Low-grade fever
    • Mild, occasional coughs
    • Apnea (in babies)

    Traditional pertussis symptoms may develop after 1 to 2 weeks, and as the infection advances, may include the following:

    • Paroxysm fits (characterized by a series of rapid coughs followed by a high-pitched “whoop” sound)
    • Vomiting (during or after coughing fits)
    • Exhaustion (after coughs)

    Although your child may frequently be tired following coughing fits, they may appear to be in good health in between bouts of coughing. Coughing fits become much more common and severe as the disease worsens, and they can occur more frequently at night. Coughing can last for up to ten weeks or more.

    It is important to note that babies do not always cough or whoop. Instead, infants may appear to be gasping for air, with a reddened face. They may even stop breathing (apnea) for several seconds during severe spells. Meanwhile, adults and teenagers may experience milder or distinct symptoms, such as a persistent cough or coughs without the whoop.

    How To Diagnose Whooping Cough

    To be able to diagnose the disease, the doctor may use a variety of diagnostic tools, including:

    • Medical history (including asking about the symptoms)
    • Physical examination
    • Lab test with mucus sample from the back of the throat through the nose
    • Blood test
    • Chest X-ray

    How To Treat Whooping Cough

    In the early stages of whooping cough, doctors prescribe antibiotics to treat the infection. This can help to prevent a severe case of the disease and also stops the infection from spreading to other people. However, some babies may require hospitalization for observation or, in severe cases, in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

    Your child is likely to infect others if not treated in the first few weeks of the disease.

    Treatment is unlikely to improve the condition if it takes place after three weeks of illness. At this point, even though the bacteria has been eliminated from the body, some symptoms may still persist. This is due to the fact that the bacteria have already caused harm to the body.

    Key Takeaways

    While whooping cough is a serious illness for younger children, parents can protect their child from infection. On top of the considerations is giving your child the proper vaccine for it. The DTaP vaccine not only provides protection against whooping cough, but also prevents tetanus and diphtheria infection.

    Learn more about Infectious Diseases in Children here.

    Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

    Medically reviewed by

    Dexter Macalintal, MD

    Written by Fiel Tugade · Updated Aug 05, 2022