Whooping cough is also known as pertussis.
Everyone's heart goes out to a baby with whooping cough. About half of children under age 1 with whooping cough require hospitalization, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The other half are able to be cared for at home. Parents and others tending to these children at home can comfort them and help them recover by treating whooping cough symptoms.
Whooping cough is sneaky, starting out like the common cold. After a week or so, the next stage emerges. Episodes of racking, staccato-like coughs that leave no time for breathing are followed by a distinctive gasp for air -- the "whoop." Sometimes vomiting punctuates the end of these fits. The coughing spells, known as paroxysms, are exhausting, especially for infants. Coughing commonly interferes with feeding and drinking. The coughing phase of the illness usually continues for 2 to 6 weeks, gradually waning. In some cases, however, symptoms may persist up to 6 months. Children under 6 months of age may cough without the paroxysms or have no cough at all. They also may have a poor appetite as well as apnea -- episodes in which they temporarily stop breathing.
Since whooping cough is caused by a bacterium, Bortadella pertussis, it is treated with antibiotics to stop transmission of the illness to other people. However, unless antibiotics are started before the coughing phase of the illness begins, they do not shorten the illness or reduce symptoms. Antibiotics recommended by the CDC include azithromycin (Zithromax), erythromycin (Ery-Ped) and clarithromycin (Biaxin). For greatest benefit, all doses of antibiotic need to be given and administered as closely as possible to the recommended time. Over-the-counter cough medications are not recommended for children under age 4. They have not been shown to be effective and may cause harmful side effects. Health-care providers may recommend other measures to help with the cough.
Hydration and good nutrition support an infant's recovery from whooping cough. Fluids are especially important to prevent dehydration and keep secretions in the airways loose. Offering food and drink more frequently than usual and in smaller amounts may decrease vomiting. Breastfed babies may need to nurse more often and for shorter periods.
Good air quality can help keep an infant with whooping cough comfortable. A cool-mist humidifier is one way to keep secretions loose. Keep it well out of the baby's reach, and keep it clean and maintained according to the manufacturer's recommendation. Steam vaporizers should not be used, as they pose a burn hazard. Avoid exposing the baby to airborne irritants that can provoke coughing fits. Examples include chemical irritants such as odorous cleaning products, tobacco smoke and smoke from burning wood or other fuels.
Suspected complications should be shared promptly with the baby's doctor. Most hospitalizations, complications and deaths due to whooping cough are in children under 1. In fact, more than 10 percent of babies under 6 months of age with whooping cough develop pneumonia, reports the CDC. Concerns that an infant is worsening or becoming dehydrated should be discussed right away with the child's doctor. Babies who appear to stop breathing -- even if they resume breathing on their own -- require emergency medical care. Likewise, infants who have a seizure, lose consciousness, appear bluish or have trouble breathing need emergency medical care.