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Jennifer L.W. Fink
Registered Nurse

Whooping Cough In Babies

This disease is on the rise — here's the scoop on how to spot, prevent and treat whooping cough in your child.

What is whooping cough in a baby?

Whooping cough (or pertussis) is a bacterial infection that, at first, causes cold-like symptoms. As the disease progresses, though, it affects baby’s breathing — and can even result in death. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than half of babies under age one who contract whooping cough have to be hospitalized. One in five of those who are hospitalized develop pneumonia, and one in 100 die.

What are the symptoms of whooping cough in babies?

It’s not what you might think — most people expect to hear babies make a “whooping” sound when they cough, but they don’t actually make that noise. “They don’t produce enough energy or pressure difference in their lungs to cause the classic ‘whoop,’” says Jeffrey Kahn, MD, director of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas. Instead, you might notice a fever, a runny nose, sneezing, a mild cough and watery eyes. As it gets worse, baby might struggle to breathe. If you see your child’s skin pull back between her ribs when she breathes — or if she’s having breathing trouble — get her to the emergency room immediately.

Are there any tests for whooping cough in babies?

Yes. If your doctor suspects whooping cough, he’ll probably use a swab to get a sample from your child’s nose and throat, and have it tested for pertussis bacteria. Your doc will also carefully consider your child’s medical history and vaccination status. If your child is fully immunized, it’s unlikely she’s got whooping cough. But if your child hasn’t been immunized with the pertussis vaccine and there’s an outbreak in your area, there’s a much higher chance your child has been (or will be) infected.

How common is whooping cough in babies?

The number of pertussis cases has been increasing since the 1980s. Over 27,000 cases of whooping cough were reported in the US in 2010, but some experts believe the actual number was much higher. Twenty-seven people died of whooping cough in 2010; 25 of them were under the age of one.

How did my baby get whooping cough?

Whooping cough is spread by respiratory droplets. So if your kid happens to be around when an infected person coughs or sneezes, she could inhale the bacterium that causes whooping cough. Babies younger than six months old are particularly vulnerable because they haven’t been fully immunized yet.

What’s the best way to treat whooping cough in babies?

If your child has whooping cough, she may need to be hospitalized. In a hospital, doctors and nurses can keep an eye on your child’s oxygen levels and give oxygen and medical treatments designed to enhance airflow to the lungs. She might need IV fluids too, since it’s tough for a child to eat or drink enough fluids when she’s struggling to breathe.

If baby’s at home, make sure she gets plenty of rest (which shouldn’t be difficult; sick kids don’t really feel like being super-active!). Stay with your child during coughing spells and don’t be afraid to call 911 if her breathing worsens.

Your doc will probably prescribe antibiotics, mostly to prevent the spread of infection. “By the time kids become symptomatic, we try to decrease the amount of contagion that they spread,” Kahn explains.

What can I do to prevent my baby from getting whooping cough?

Vaccination can almost always prevent whooping cough — and if a vaccinated child does get infected, it will almost certainly be less severe than if she hadn’t been vaccinated.

The CDC recommends DTaP (yup, the “P” stands for pertussis) immunizations at two, four and six months of age, with booster shots around one year and kindergarten age. Recently, the CDC began recommending booster shots around age 11 or 12 as well.

What do other moms do when their babies have whooping cough?

“My baby has whooping cough, and I feel so guilty since I was the one to bring it home.... I now know I have whooping cough complicated by pneumonia. My husband has it too: The pediatrician actually called us this morning to let us know his test came back positive. I’m so glad we chose her — I'm not sure how many doctors would’ve done the same.”

Are there any other resources for whooping cough in babies?

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention

The Bump expert: Jeffrey Kahn, MD, director of Pediatric Infectious Diseases, Children’s Medical Center, Dallas

PHOTO: Getty Images