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Whooping Cough

Tussis convulsiva (Latin name)

By Bjarne Lühr Hansen PhD, MD and Philipp Skafte-Holm MD, Mentor Institute

Whooping cough is caused by infection with the pertussis bacterium. At first the child has a common cold for a few weeks and hereafter the typical violent coughing fits begins that end with whooping breathing. Infants do not have whooping breathing; instead, they stop breathing after the fit. In most cases, whooping cough does not require treatment, however, infants require close surveillance and a lot of children les than 1 year old are therefore admitted into a hospital. You must call a doctor immediately, if you suspect whooping cough and the child is less than 1 year old or if the child has trouble breathing.

All over the world, 20-40 million people are diagnosed with whooping cough every year and around 300.000 die from the illness.

Whooping cough is caused by an infection with a certain bacterium (Bordetella pertussis). The bacteria produce a toxin that affects the child’s blood. It is the toxin that makes the child ill. So despite the fact that there is medication that can kill the bacteria, it is not very effective because the toxin has already entered the child’s bloodstream, when the treatment is commenced.

Whooping cough begins as a common cold with a head cold and a light cough. After a couple of weeks, the typical coughing fits begin that consist of a series of violent coughs followed by deep breathing with a whooping sound. Infants less than 3 months old, rarely makes the whooping sound but instead they stop breathing and their lips turn blue. With children 10 to 12 years old, whooping cough appears as a dry cough. The child coughs up viscous slime and often also vomits. The coughing fits can appear all the way up to 30 to 40 times a day. The child does not fully improve, until after 6 to 8 months. After the child has improved from whooping cough, it is protected from another case of whooping cough for many years to come but not for the rest of its life. It is possible to contract whooping cough several times.

If you suspect whooping cough, a doctor can perform an inoculation from the nasopharynx and have it cultivated at a hospital. You will have the answer after approximately 5 days. In most cases, whooping cough requires no treatment. Infants require close surveillance that for some time is best performed during admission to a hospital. The doctors can treat with antibiotics but the results are not convincing. A few children with whooping cough develop pneumonia, inflammation of the middle ear or bronchitis. In those cases, the child has a fever. Ordinary whooping cough does not cause a fever.

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Whooping cough is highly contagious. If a child in a day care has contracted whooping cough, 9 out of 10 children in the day care become infected if they have not previously contracted the illness or been vaccinated. The illness infects through cough and sneezing. The ill child can infect others before and up to 4 weeks after the coughing fits begin.

It takes 5 to 15 days from the child has become infected till the illness breaks out.

Day care:
Children with whooping cough must not attend day care, as long as the coughing fits cause troubled breathing. If whooping cough appears in the day care, all children less than 1 year old must be sent home, however, this is except children who has had the illness or who has been vaccinated twice. Since larger children and adults can have mild cases of whooping cough without knowing it, people who show signs of common cold and who coughs should stay far away from infants less than 3 months old.


Whooping cough can be treated with antibiotics, however, the effect is not convincing. Cough medicine has no effect.

What can you do?

You can raise the bedhead with books or bricks (15-20 cm), so that the head become elevated above the rest of the body. This will soothe the cough and ease breathing.

Contact the doctor tomorrow

If you suspect whooping cough.

Contact the doctor immediately

If you suspect whooping cough and the child is less than 1 year old or if the child has trouble breathing. If your child has whooping cough and has a fever.