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Whooping Cough (Pertussis) (cont.)

When should I seek medical care for whooping cough?

When to call the doctor

  • If you suspect you or your child has whooping cough
  • If your child has been exposed to someone with whooping cough, regardless of whether the child has received immunization shots
  • If your child has a fever that cannot be controlled with over-the-counter medication
  • If your child is unable to keep solids and liquids down (vomits)

When to go to the hospital

  • If your child stops breathing, call 911 emergency services and begin CPR.
  • If your child turns blue during a coughing spell
  • Go to a hospital's emergency department if someone with whooping cough shows these symptoms:
    • Inability to tolerate liquids (vomiting)
    • Uncontrolled fever even with anti-fever medications
    • Signs of respiratory distress including rapid breathing and turning blue
    • Signs of dehydration, including weight loss, dry mucous membranes, or decreased urine output

How is whooping cough diagnosed?

The best way to diagnose whooping cough is by confirming the presence of the specific disease-causing bacteria Bordetella pertussis in mucus taken from the nose and throat.

  • Because the growth of the bacteria is inhibited by cotton, swabs made from special material, either calcium alginate or Dacron, must be used in obtaining the sample. Studies have shown that cultures are more likely to be positive if the sample is collected during the first stage of the illness or early in the second. The likelihood for isolating the organism (and confirming the diagnosis) declines with any delay in specimen collection beyond the first three weeks of illness. A culture for Bordetella pertussis is usually negative after five days of treatment with antibiotics.
  • Other laboratory methods used to diagnose pertussis infection such as serologic testing and PCR are available in certain labs. Neither method has been shown to be more specific than culture isolation of the organism.
  • A complete blood count (CBC) may be performed.

Self-Care at Home for Whooping Cough

Because younger children are at higher risk to develop a severe case of whooping cough than adults, many may be admitted to the hospital.

For children and adults who do not require hospitalization, here are some tips to manage the disease at home after a doctor has diagnosed whooping cough.

  • Isolate the person as much as possible (for example, a separate bedroom) until he or she has received five days of antibiotics. If possible, everyone who comes into contact with the sick person should wear a surgical mask to cover their face. Sometimes close contacts of an individual diagnosed with whooping cough may be prescribed antibiotics to prevent transmission of the bacteria.
  • Practice good hand washing. Whooping cough bacteria can be transmitted through contact with contaminated inanimate objects such as dishes.
  • Drink plenty of fluids, including water, juices, soups, and eat fruits to prevent dehydration.
  • Eat small, frequent meals to decrease the amount of vomiting.
  • Use a cool-mist vaporizer to help loosen secretions and soothe the cough.
  • Keep the home environment free from irritants that can trigger coughing, such as smoke, aerosols, and fumes.
  • Monitor a sick child for signs of dehydration, such as dry lips and tongue, dry skin, decrease in the amount of urine or wet diapers, and crying without producing tears. Report any signs of dehydration to your doctor immediately.
  • Do not give cough medications or other home remedies unless otherwise instructed by your doctor.
Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 7/8/2016

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