Whooping cough is a highly contagious bacterial infection of the lungs and airways. The medical term for whooping cough is pertussis.
The condition usually begins with a persistent dry and irritating cough that progresses to intense bouts of coughing. These are followed by a distinctive 'whooping' noise, which is how the condition gets its name.
Other symptoms include a runny nose, raised temperature and vomiting after coughing.
The coughing can last for around three months (another name for whooping cough is the ‘hundred day cough’).
Read more about the symptoms of whooping cough.
Whooping cough is caused by a bacterium called Bordetella pertussis, which can be passed from person to person through droplets in the air from coughing and sneezing.
Read more about the causes of whooping cough.
Treating whooping cough
Your GP may prescribe a course of antibiotics if whooping cough is diagnosed during the first three weeks of the infection. This will prevent the infection being passed on to others.
It is important to take steps to avoid spreading the infection to others, particularly babies under six months of age.
Children with whooping cough should be kept away from school or nursery until after they have finished taking antibiotics for five days. The same advice applies to adults returning to work.
As a precaution, household members of someone with whooping cough may also be given antibiotics and a booster shot of the vaccine.
If whooping cough is not diagnosed until the later stages of infection, antibiotics will not usually be prescribed. The bacterium that causes whooping cough will have gone by this time so you will no longer be infectious and antibiotics will not make a difference to your symptoms at this stage.
Your GP will be able to advise you about how to manage the infection at home using some simple, self care advice, such as ensuring that you get plenty of rest and that you drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration.
Read more about treating whooping cough.
Babies under the age of six months are likely to be admitted to hospital as they are most at risk of severe complications, such as serious breathing difficulties.
They will be treated in isolation to prevent the infection spreading and will be given antibiotics into a vein through a drip (intravenously).
Read more about the complications of whooping cough.
In the UK, all pregnant women are now to be offered vaccination against whooping cough when they are 28-38 weeks pregnant. Getting vaccinated while you’re pregnant could help to protect your baby from developing whooping cough in its first few weeks of life.
Children are vaccinated against whooping cough at two, three and four months of age, and again before starting school at the age of about three years and four months.
Read more about preventing whooping cough.
Although the number of cases of whooping cough has fallen dramatically since vaccination began, it is still possible for children to get the infection, so having the vaccination is vital.
The more people vaccinated against whooping cough the less chance there is of them passing on the infection to a young baby in which it could cause serious, and possibly fatal, complications.
The effectiveness of the whooping cough vaccination may fade over time, meaning it is possible to develop the condition during adulthood if you were previously vaccinated.
Who is affected
Due to the success of the NHS vaccination scheme, whooping cough is now uncommon in young children.
Most cases now occur in adults whose immunity has faded and in these cases symptoms tend to be less serious (although having to live with a persistent cough can be both frustrating and unpleasant).
Whooping cough is a cyclical disease with the number of cases peaking every three to four years. At the time of writing (June 2012), a peak is occurring.
There were 1,080 cases in the first quarter of 2012 in England and Wales. While there were only 910 cases during the whole of 2011.