Whooping Cough: What You Need to Know

Although pertussis, or whooping cough, is most commonly associated with babies, college students are just as susceptible.

Pertussis causes intense fits or spells of coughing and is known for the whooping sound made as air is inhaled. Thousands of new cases are reported each year in the U.S. Symptoms can last for weeks, and in some cases, the coughing can be so intense that eating, drinking or even breathing is difficult.

Although many have been vaccinated for whooping cough, these vaccinations aren’t 100 percent effective. The vaccine wears off over time, so those without a booster may spread the illness. Even those who have had a booster could catch it during intense local outbreaks.

How do I know if I have it?

Whooping cough is caused by a bacterium called Bordetella pertussis and is spread through droplets in the air caused by sneezing and coughing. Once the bacterium is present in the airways, they begin to swell and the body produces mucus. What starts like a common cold eventually evolves into a severe cough.

Symptoms are grouped into three stages

  • Stage one: Mild cough, low-grade fever, runny nose
  • Stage two: Worsening cough that is dry, harsh and ends with a whoop sound; cough that may cause vomiting; coughing started by many different actions (eating, talking, etc.)
  • Stage three: Vomiting and whooping sound cease, cough decreases after six weeks

How can I get better?

Because whooping cough symptoms look like other medical conditions, it’s important you visit a health care provider for diagnosis. Whooping cough can be confirmed with a culture taken from the nose.

Your age, medical history and severity of the condition can determine treatment. Hospitalization may be ordered for sever cases. Antibiotics likely will be given to prevent the spread of infection to others. Rest, fluids and fever control are recommended.

How can I prevent it?

If you didn’t have a booster, called Tdap, as a pre-teen, get one now. When it’s time for you to get your regular tetanus booster (recommended every 10 years), get a Tdap instead.

When you have a cough, remember to cover it with your sleeve or a tissue to prevent spreading germs and wash your hands often.

If you suspect your symptoms are worsening, see a medical provider. Early treatment prevents the spread of whooping cough, so don’t put off scheduling an appointment. Call 402.472.5000 to be seen at the University Health Center.


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