Whooping Cough

Two cases of whooping cough, or pertussis, have shown up in Fayetteville public schools here in Northwest Arkansas. Many parents have never heard of this disease.

And yet whooping cough was once a serious and common illness. The Ngram viewer from Google shows that whooping cough was a big concern in the first half of the 20th century — and that fewer and fewer people were writing about it by the end of the 20th century.


Why have publications about whooping cough dwindled so much? Thanks to vaccinations, the number of cases of whooping cough fell sharply in the second half of the 20th century. In the 1940s, it was not unusual to see 100,000 or more cases each year in the United States. Once most American children were vaccinated, the incidence of the disease fell sharply.

As more children are left unvaccinated, whooping cough is making a comeback. Click To Tweet


Pertussis is another name for whooping cough. This disease starts out like the common cold: coughing, sneezing, and a low fever. After a week or two, the cough gets worse. The patient is likely to have fits of coughing that leave him or her exhausted. Coughing fits may lead to vomiting or pauses in normal breathing. There is also a whooping sound that gave the disease its common name.

You can hear the sound of the cough in the video below. Please be aware, this video may be upsetting, since it shows a sick child.

Once pertussis is established, the cough may continue for weeks or even months.

The disease is more dangerous among babies. The Centers for Disease Control report that babies under one year have a 50% chance of ending up in the hospital if they catch pertussis.

Very contagious

Whooping cough is a very contagious disease. It can take 3 weeks for symptoms to show after infection, and it often takes two more weeks to diagnose the illness as pertussis. Infected people can therefore infect many more people before they realize they are contagious.

Whooping cough is a bacterial infection of the lungs. Coughing and sneezing send the bacteria out into the air, where other people can easily breathe them in. If a member of the family has pertussis, 90% of the other people living in the home may catch the disease.

The CDC estimates that a person with whooping cough may infect 12 to 15 other people. Even a person who has been vaccinated can catch the disease, although their illness will usually be minor.

A dangerous disease

Pneumonia can develop as a complication from whooping cough. This is one reason that whooping cough is sometimes fatal. Another reason is that that the swelling of the breathing passages in a young infant can make it difficult for the child to breathe. In the 1930s and 1940s, according to Stanford Children’s Health, thousands died from pertussis.

Now, deaths from whooping cough are rare and it is mostly young infants who are in serious danger from this disease.

How to prevent whooping cough

Vaccination is the best way to prevent whooping cough.

Particularly since infected people may be most contagious before they are aware that they have whooping cough, it is difficult to avoid contagion once the disease shows up in the community.

How whooping cough is treated

If you think your child might have whooping cough, you must visit your pediatrician. The early symptoms of this disease are similar to other diseases. Your doctor may take a culture from your child’s nose to be sure it is in fact whooping cough.

Antibiotics might be part of the treatment. They may not make the disease end faster, but they can reduce the danger of infecting other people. Adults in the family may also be given antibiotics.

An infant may have to be hospitalized for oxygen treatments. If your child stays at home, you may need to keep him or her warm and calm to reduce coughing fits. Frequent meals and lots of liquids can help.

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