What is whooping cough and how do you catch it?

As experts warn of rising cases, a doctor explains why preventing whooping cough is so important.

Whooping cough can sometimes be very serious
Whooping cough can sometimes be very serious (Alamy Stock Photo)

Whooping cough has been on the rise. The Public Health Agency has issued an appeal after a ‘significant’ rise in cases in Northern Ireland.

It is urging pregnant woman and the parents of young children to book an appointment for the pertussis vaccine.

Numbers do tend to go up every few years, and it’s believed the rise in social contact following the pandemic is playing a part right now.

So, what makes whooping cough different from regular coughs, and what do you need to know?

How is whooping cough different from ‘normal’ coughs?

While many coughs are caused by the common cold virus, whooping cough is a bacterial infection (known medically as pertussis).

“Whooping cough often appears as a normal cough or cold at first, however you may notice symptoms intensifying after a week or two,” says Dr Kathryn Basford from online doctor, Zava. “While a typical cough clears up in a few weeks and feels mild, whooping cough can linger for much longer, even up to a few months.

Whooping cough is caused by a bacterial infection
Whooping cough is caused by a bacterial infection (Alamy Stock Photo)

“The key difference to look out for between a mild cough and whooping cough is the intensity. Whooping cough comes in strong coughing fits, especially at night, and most notably includes a high-pitched ‘whoop’ as you struggle to breathe. It can even lead to vomiting, a bright red face, and difficulty breathing.

“And unlike a regular cough, whooping cough is much more contagious. If you haven’t received a vaccination for whooping cough, it’s definitely worth seeing a doctor to explore getting one. Early diagnosis and treatment are crucial to prevent complications and spreading.”

How do you catch whooping cough?

“Whooping cough is a highly contagious respiratory illness, meaning it spreads through the air via tiny droplets expelled when an infected person coughs or sneezes. These droplets can be inhaled by others nearby,” says Basford.

“Additionally, the bacteria can linger on surfaces touched by an infected individual, creating indirect transmission if someone else touches the surface and then touches their eyes, nose, or mouth. This is why frequent hand washing and maintaining good respiratory hygiene, like covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze, are crucial in preventing the spread.”

Does it only affect children or can adults get it too?

Anyone can potentially catch whooping cough
Anyone can potentially catch whooping cough (Alamy Stock Photo)

Basford explains: “While whooping cough is most commonly associated with young children, it is still possible for adults to catch it. Adults typically experience milder symptoms than children.”

Can whooping cough be serious?

“Whooping cough can definitely be serious, especially for young babies who haven’t yet been vaccinated. Younger children especially can struggle to breathe during coughing fits, leading to complications like pneumonia and in some rarer, more severe cases, death,” Basford cautions. “Even in adults, the constant coughing can be debilitating, causing sleep problems and making daily activities tough.”

How else can you prevent it?

“The best way to avoid a serious whooping cough is with vaccination – the vaccine is included in the routine NHS vaccination schedule and is given to babies and then as part of the pre-school boosters. Pregnant women should also receive the vaccination to protect their baby once it is born; this is given between 16 and 32 weeks.”

How do you treat whooping cough?

“Treating whooping cough depends on a few factors, like your age and how long you’ve had it. Infants under six months are at greater risk of complications and often require hospitalisation and specific care,” says Basford.

“If you’re diagnosed early (within three weeks), antibiotics can help. Medication won’t necessarily make you feel better faster, but it plays a crucial role in stopping the spread. However, if it’s been over three weeks, antibiotics may not help as much as you’re likely to no longer be contagious.

“The focus is on managing symptoms: getting plenty of rest, staying hydrated, and using a cool mist humidifier to ease the cough. Painkillers such as ibuprofen or paracetamol can also help with discomfort.”

Always consult your doctor for an accurate diagnosis and treatment advice, and seek urgent help if someone is experiencing any signs of breathing difficulties.