Is It Whooping Cough or a Cold?

It’s hard to tell at first but whooping cough lasts longer

A little girl coughs in bed while  holding her play bear.

It’s hard to tell at first but whooping cough lasts longer

A cold and whooping cough might seem alike in their initial stages. Both may start with a stuffy or runny nose, mild cough and sneezing. But while cold symptoms improve, whooping cough – also known as pertussis – only gets worse with time.

People with whopping cough develop coughing fits that make it hard to breathe. The condition gets its name from the whooping sound that a person gasping for air makes after prolonged coughing.

“It may be hard to tell the difference at first but it’s vital to get medical help if you think it could be something like whooping cough,” says Mark Shalauta, MD, a family medicine physician at Scripps Clinic Rancho Bernardo.

“When in doubt, call your doctor’s office. Our job is to help you distinguish a common cold from something more serious.”

What causes whooping cough?

Whooping cough is a highly contagious respiratory infection that spreads easily by coughing and sneezing and can affect anyone.

It is a serious illness, especially for babies and young children who have not received all recommended whooping cough vaccines. It can cause pneumonia, seizures, brain damage and death.

What are the symptoms of whooping cough?

The symptoms of whooping cough become clearer when those early mild signs that could have been mistaken for a cold worsen after one to two weeks and include these symptoms:

  • Uncontrolled coughing spasms, with rapid coughs followed by a whooping sound when inhaling
  • Vomiting or gagging during or after coughing fits
  • Exhaustion after coughing fits

The symptoms of whooping cough can be different depending on your age.

Babies may experience a pause in breathing, a symptom known as apnea. Some babies may not cough at all but may turn blue because they can’t catch their breath.

“If your child is having trouble breathing or has a blue color to his or her skin, call 911 immediately,” Dr. Shalauta says.

Older children may only have a runny nose and low fever but then develop a persistent cough that can last for several weeks or months and lead to complications, such as passing out and rib fractures from severe coughing.

The infection is generally milder in teens and adults who have received their pertussis vaccines, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In most cases the cough won’t last as many days.

How is whooping cough diagnosed and treated?

Whooping cough is diagnosed via a physical exam and laboratory and blood tests. Your doctor will also ask if you’ve been exposed to the illness and your symptoms.

The illness is usually treated with antibiotics. Rest, plenty of fluids and a humidifier to keep the air moist will also help speed recovery. Over-the-counter cough remedies are not recommended. Infants and children with severe pertussis may have to be admitted to the hospital for treatment.

If you or someone in your family has been in contact with someone who has a confirmed diagnosis of whooping cough, antibiotics can be given to help prevent the disease.

“Check with your primary care doctor about post-exposure prophylaxis which may include a course of antibiotics to help prevent the disease,” Dr. Shalauta says.

Practice good hygiene

Keeping your hands clean is one of the most important ways to avoid getting sick and spreading germs to others. Remember to wash your hands frequently with soap and clean running water.

Vaccination offers best protection

Whooping cough or pertussis vaccines are the best protection against this contagious illness.

Check with your doctor to see if everyone is up to date with the appropriate number of DTaP (children under 7) or Tdap (adolescent and adult) vaccine doses. These vaccines also provide protection against tetanus and diphtheria.

Vaccines protect pregnant women and babies

According to the CDC, women who are pregnant should receive a Tdap vaccine in their third trimester. By doing so, high levels of antibodies are passed to the baby before birth. These antibodies help protect the baby against whooping cough in those first months of life, when infants are most susceptible to illnesses such as whooping cough.

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