Pertussis: What Every New Parent Should Know

More commonly known as whooping cough, pertussis is a highly contagious bacterial infection that can effect people of any age, but causes particularly dangerous symptoms in infants. The disease gets its name from the high-pitched cough that infected children experience. Because pertussis can cause choking and suffocation by causing a mucous plug to form in the throat, it can become life-threatening. As a parent, knowing the basics about whooping cough will help protect your child from this disease and seek the proper treatment if he or she does become infected.

Distinguishing Between Pertussis and the Common Cold

The early symptoms of whooping cough mimic those of the common cold. Your child may develop a runny nose, seem generally irritable and have a slight fever (generally below 102 degrees F). Within several days, however, the symptoms become worse than those typically associated with a cold, and may include:

  • Violet coughs that end in a loud "whoop" sound. This symptom is less common in children over 6 months of age than in young infants.
  • Coughing spells that lead to short periods of loss of consciousnesses.
  • Alarming lethargy. Your child may appear listless and completely devoid of energy.
  • Vomiting or diarrhea.
  • A fever that increases as the disease progresses, sometimes reaching temperatures as above 103 degrees F.

What to do If You Suspect Your Child Has Whooping Cough

If what starts as a common cold begins to appear more serious, don't waste any time seeking medical attention. Call your child's pediatrician immediately, and give a detailed account of the symptoms. Your pediatrician may schedule an appointment or may tell you to report to the emergency room if the symptoms are severe.

While awaiting medical care, make sure your child is taking in plenty of fluids to prevent dehydration. Warm water may be easier for your child to drink than cold water. Turning on the shower to create steam and resting with your child in the steamy bathroom may help ease his or her cough in the short-term. Do not give your child cough suppressants unless directed to do so by your physician -- they are not generally effective in treating coughs caused by pertussis.

Reasons to Seek Emergency Treatment

If your child is displaying any of the following symptoms, take him or her to the emergency room immediately:

  • Seizures (sometimes caused by a high fever).
  • A rectal temperature above 100.4 degrees F in an infant under 3 months of age, or a rectal temperature above 103 degrees F in a child older than 3 months.
  • Vomiting frequently and unable to keep down liquids.

Call 911 if your child:

  • Stops breathing
  • Develops a blue tint to his or her skin

Treating Pertussis

If your doctor determines that your child's symptoms are, in fact, due to pertussis, he or she will begin treatment with antibiotics that will help fight off the bacteria that cause the illness. In most cases, your child will be able to be treated at home, but severe case and those that are not caught early may require hospitalization.

Children with pertussis must also be given plenty of fluids. Fluids may be administered intravenously if a child is found to be dehydrated. A vaporizer may be used to add moisture to the air and make it easier for the child to breath.

Protecting Your Child from Pertussis

The most effective way to protect your child from pertussis is to have him or her vaccinated against the disease. However, the first vaccine is not generally administered until a child reaches 2 months of age. Pregnant women can be vaccinated during their third trimester to help protect young infants.

Pertussis can be carried by adults who don't show symptoms. For this reason, it's important to limit your baby's exposure to adults who have not been vaccinated against pertussis, especially when he or she is under 6 months of age, since this is when pertussis tends to be most severe.

Thanks to pertussis vaccinations, this disease is less common today than it once was. Still, it's important to be aware of pertussis, so that you can minimize your child's risk of the disease and seek treatment if it is suspected.