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What is Whooping Cough?


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Whooping cough, or pertussis, is a very catching bacterial infection. Early symptoms include a dry cough and a runny nose so it starts a bit like a cold, but it soon develops into severe bouts of coughing, each one ending with the typical ‘whoop’ as the person gasps for breath.

Pertussis can strike at any age, but babies under 6 months old are much more likely to have serious symptoms and complications that can even be fatal. I’m thinking of vomiting and dehydration, as well as seizures, pneumonia and even encephalitis (inflammation of the brain). Even when there are no complications, pertussis is an exhausting illness that can last for weeks.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that the disease is vaccine-preventable. However, the protection it gives doesn’t always last forever.

Are there vaccines available for pertussis?

There’s been a huge surge in whooping cough cases, so the NHS has begun offering all pregnant women in the UK a vaccine against whooping cough when they are 28-38 weeks pregnant. The aim is for mums to be to produce antibodies that will protect their babies from birth, at the time when they’re most vulnerable, until they have their own whooping cough jabs at 2 months old.

How can you treat pertussis?

In the first three weeks after symptoms appear, pertussis is treated with antibiotics. If the condition is diagnosed later, then antibiotics aren’t usually helpful. Because it’s so contagious, contacts of those with pertussis may need to be vaccinated or prescribed antibiotics, depending on how long ago they had the vaccine.

10865 Published November 2012

Review Scheduled November 2013

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