Signs of Whooping Cough in Babies: Treatment & Prevention

Whooping cough is a highly contagious infection of the respiratory system caused by the bacteria B. pertussis. It can cause serious illness in babies younger than six months who aren"t protected by immunization. For the first time in a decade in Orange County, an infant had passed away because of this serious disease.

Though highly-contagious, whooping cough or pertussis is vaccine-preventable and the risks can be easily avoided if we can identify its symptoms at an earlier stage.

How Does Whooping Cough (Pertussis) Spread in Babies?

Whooping cough bacteria, B. pertussis, can spread in babies when they come in close contact with droplets coughed or sneezed out by someone affected with the disease. Babies can also get exposed easily through contact with recently contaminated hard surfaces, like your bedroom floor or a dining table where they crawl while playing.

Upon transmission, the B. pertussis bacteria will thrive in your baby’s respiratory passages where they will produce harmful toxins that cause damage to the tiny hairs (cilia) in the respiratory tract. These tiny hairs are responsible for trapping and sweeping out the unwanted particles that are breathed in, along with the mucus produced in the lungs. When they are damaged, it results in increased inflammation of the respiratory passages and the typical dry cough.

Babies younger than two months are most prone to whooping cough bacteria. However, children less than one year of age should experience somewhat equally severe symptoms.

Signs and Symptoms of Whooping Cough in Babies

The early symptoms of whooping cough are visible about a week after the exposure and last for up to 1 to 2 weeks after the exposure. During this time, your child may experience:

  • Runny nose
  • Mild fever
  • Mild, or occasional cough (babies under six months may not have a cough at all)
  • Pause in child’s breathing, a condition commonly known as Apnea

As the disease progresses and enters into its later stage, it will start to show its traditional symptoms, which are:

  • Longer coughing spells leading to child’s face turning red or purple
  • High-pitched “whooping” sound at the end of the coughing spell as the child breathes in
  • Problems catching a breath after a coughing spell
  • Vomiting or throwing up after or during the spell
  • Chest infection and middle ear infections are common among children with whooping cough

Whooping Cough Treatment Options for Babies

Your doctor will consider three things before advising on treatment.

  1. Your child’s age
  2. The severity of the symptoms
  3. How long the child has had the symptoms

The different treatment options that your doctor may recommend for your child’s whooping cough are:

Whooping cough is life-threatening for children younger than six months, and that’s why they almost always need hospitalization. In the hospital, children are kept under close observation and given specialized medications. They may need suctioning to clear the airways, oxygen given if required, and Intravenous (IV) fluids will be provided if they are showing signs of dehydration or have difficulty eating.

Children older than six months who are quite unwell also need to stay in the hospital for treatment.

Antibiotics are usually given to shorten the length of the time your child is infectious. However, antibiotics are effective only if they are prescribed in the early stage of illness. Preventive antibiotics are given at a later stage also, but only to stop the spread of infection to others.

In most less severe cases, children are cared for at home after they have been seen by a doctor. If that’s the case with you, follow the schedule for giving antibiotics exactly as your doctor has prescribed. Here are a few tips to help your child recover quickly:

  1. Hospitalization

  2. Antibiotics

  3. Care at Home

    • Give your child small, frequent meals and encourage to drink lots of fluids
    • Let your child rest in bed
    • Use a cool-mist vaporizer to help soothe irritated lungs and breathing passages
    • Keep your home free of irritants that can trigger the coughing spell
    • Watch for signs of dehydration, like restlessness, lethargy, sunken eyes, a dry mouth and tongue, dry skin, and crying without tears

Immunization to Protect Your Child from Whooping Cough

Getting vaccinated is the best protection against the contagious pertussis disease. Two types of vaccines are given in the US for protection against whooping cough: DTaP and Tdap. DTaP is given to children younger than seven years, and Tdap is given to older children, and teens and adults.

All babies who are of less than six months and haven"t completed their three-dose primary vaccine course (2, 4, and 6 months) are at risk of catching whooping cough. For protecting children under two months of age, maternal vaccination is recommended during pregnancy. Vaccination is recommended to pregnant ladies in their third trimester (at 27-36th week).

See below the CDC’s recommendation of vaccines for people of all ages.

Whooping Cough Vaccine Recommendation by CDC

Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

Whooping cough or pertussis is life-threatening for your child, but it can be easily prevented through vaccination. Keep up-to-date on vaccinations and schedule an appointment with your physician if you see any pertussis symptoms in your child. You can also visit our urgent care clinic near you to get your child seen by an experienced physician.

Category: Child Health


Brian Coyne

Brian Coyne, MD. Dr. Coyne is a board certified family practice physician serves fpr Family Care Centers - Fountain Valley. He completed his undergraduate degree at UCLA before earning his medical degree at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Dr. Coyne spent 6 years in the US Air Force at Andrews and Luke Air force at Andrews and Luke Air Force bases, eventually separating as a Major. He enjoys working with patients of all ages.

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