Whooping cough, also called pertussis, is an infection of the lungs and airways that is caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis. This bacterium produces toxins that cause severe coughing bouts that can persist for several months. Pertussis is therefore also commonly known as the ‘100 day cough’. Apart from coughing bouts, complications such as pneumonia, breathing difficulties, brain damage and fits may occur. The illness is especially dangerous for infants and young children. Therefore, the whooping cough vaccine was added to the National Immunisation Programme in 1957. According to the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM), 97% of all inhabitants of The Netherlands are vaccinated against whooping cough. The incubation period of pertussis is typically seven to ten days.
Whooping cough symptoms
The first symptoms of whooping cough are similar to those of a regular cold, however, after a while these are followed by intense coughing, and eventually by prolonged coughing bouts. Coughing usually brings up thick mucus and may be followed by vomiting. Other symptoms include wheezing (particularly after prolonged coughing fits). Pneumonia is the most common complication of whooping cough. In young children, pertussis can also lead to a brain haemorrhage, which in turn may lead to brain damage. Young children can sometimes briefly turn blue if they have trouble breathing. In very young babies, there may be brief periods where they stop breathing.
Whooping cough: prevention and vaccination
Whooping cough is highly contagious and can be transmitted through coughing. Their mother and siblings often infect babies. Humans can get whooping cough more than once in their lives. A vaccine provides protection for several years, but the risk of the catching disease is not completely eliminated. That is why young children get vaccinated. Most adults do not get vaccinated against pertussis because the disease is usually less severe in adults. Moreover, most adults have already been vaccinated in the past or gone through the disease unnoticed. In the near future, pregnant women may be vaccinated against whooping cough, as the Dutch National Institute for Public Health and the Environment (RIVM) advised the Ministry of Health to consider this. In order to reduce the risk of transmitting whooping cough, we recommended that you cover your nose and mouth – using your hand or elbow – when coughing or sneezing and to wash your hands afterwards.
Young children and whooping cough
Babies and young children under six months are usually most severely affected by whooping cough. They’re at in increased risk of pneumonia, weight loss, breathing difficulties, brain damage caused by a lack of oxygen and even death – although this is very rare. It is therefore strongly advised to avoid contact between people who cough or sneeze and unvaccinated babies.
Whooping cough and travelling
Whooping cough occurs all over the world. The World Health Organization estimates that each year some 45 million people get whooping cough and about 400,000 people die from the disease. If you travel with young children, please make sure they have been vaccinated against whooping cough.