Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, is a highly contagious bacterial infection that can strike people of any age but is most dangerous to children, particularly babies under 1 year old. The illness gets its name from the sound that children typically make while gasping for air. When an infected person coughs or sneezes, microscopic, bacteria-laden droplets can easily be inhaled by anyone nearby. The bacteria causes inflammation, constricting the airways and leading to the distinctive gasping in between coughs. Many infants are infected by their parents or caregivers, who usually have no idea they are a source of contagion.
"In an adult, it's just a nagging cough for a couple of months," pediatrician Dr. Jim Sears says. "It used to be called 'The 100-Day Cough,' but if a baby gets it, they cough so hard, they can't breathe, and it can be fatal."
The infection usually presents with mild, common cold-like symptoms, including runny nose, nasal congestion, dry cough, mild fever and sneezing. Mucus will begin to accumulate in the airways and after a week or two, the signature severe, hacking cough will develop.
According to the Mayo Clinic, prolonged coughing attacks can induce vomiting, cause extreme fatigue, result in a red or blue face, and will usually end with a "whoop" or gasping sound during the next breath.
The best defense against the spread of pertussis is vaccination.
"This is a classic example of herd immunity," ER physician Dr. Travis says. "We vaccinate adults, and by vaccinating adults and parents, one-month old babies don't have to die. It's that simple."
New recommendations from the CDC state that pregnant women should get vaccinated between 27 and 36 weeks of pregnancy, and all adults, particularly those with small children at home, should receive the vaccine to prevent transmission. Children are routinely vaccinated with five doses beginning at 2 months, and a booster shot is recommended at age 11 or 12.
Due to the severity of the infection and the increased risk of death for infants, patients in that age group are generally hospitalized for treatment. According to the Mayo Clinic, older children and adults can typically be treated at home.
While antibiotics can be prescribed to fight the infection, there is currently no effective treatment to relieve the lingering cough. Over-the-counter cough medications are not recommended.