Whooping Cough: The Forgotten Illness

Shannon Smith

Writer’s comment: I took English 104E (Scientific and Technical Writing) to learn writing techniques necessary to pursue a career in the field of science. It was a challenging course taught by Dr. Squitieri who continually asked more from me. This in turn improved my writing skills a great deal. The assignment was to choose a topic that we had enough background knowledge on to write a lay article. I chose whooping cough as my topic because I was diagnosed with this illness in 2001. I enjoyed writing this lay article because I was able to tell my own story as well as include facts and statistics that I acquired while being sick. I realized how important it is to establish your audience and use appropriate tactics to capture their attention in order to convey your main ideas. My main goal for this piece was to find a successful way to inform parents that whooping cough still exists and that they should immunize their children. Thanks to English 104E and Dr. Squitieri, I have fine- tuned my writing and gained new skills that will help me with my future in science.
—Shannon Smith

“Her oxygen is down to 70%; we need an I.V. started and an oxygen mask stat!” My hands began to clench and I was losing feeling in my legs. “Don’t worry, sweetie,” said the nurse in a distressed tone. “You are just having a hard time breathing right now, but we are working on making it easier for you.” Three hours later, after a chest x-ray and enough medication to help me sleep through the night, I was released from the hospital with a diagnosis of pneumonia.
         Two days later, I experienced my first ride in the back of an ambulance. While the ambulance was not the most luxurious mode of transportation, it did come with all of the necessary equipment to keep me breathing. I can remember thinking to myself, “I had pneumonia last winter, but this just doesn’t seem the same.” After collapsing in the UC Davis Health Center during my pneumonia check-up, I visited the Emergency Room for the second time in a week. At the hospital, I was given medication around the clock and a breathing treatment every two hours to reduce the crackling and bellowing noises I made with every breath I took.
         The next morning a doctor came in to see me. She said, “I’ve been listening to you cough for about three minutes outside your door, and I think you have whooping cough.”
         “Whooping cough,” I thought, “Isn’t that some kind of childhood disease?”
         It seemed impossible for me to have it; not only was I nineteen years old, I had been immunized for the disease when I was a child. I thought that the doctor misdiagnosed me again, but she tested me for whooping cough and the test came back positive.
         In the three trips to the Health Center prior to my hospitalization, I was diagnosed twice with bronchitis and once with an upper respiratory infection. While I received antibiotic treatments during each visit to the Health Center, I never fully recovered from any of my illnesses. It was not until my second visit to the hospital, and two months of being extremely ill, that I was treated for whooping cough.

SYMPTOMS Because the symptoms are similar to those of bronchitis or an upper respiratory tract infection, it is easy to misdiagnose whooping cough. The average case of whooping cough lasts approximately six weeks and has three stages. The initial stage (catarrhal stage) begins with a mild cough, sneezing, and a runny nose, similar to the common cold. The second stage (paroxysmal stage), which is more severe, includes repetitive coughing spells and a distinctive whoop and /or vomiting. In the final stage (convalescent stage) of this illness, there is a decrease in the severity and quantity of coughing episodes. Whooping cough is not usually accompanied by a fever; however, possible complications include pneumonia and seizures. Secondary bacterial pneumonia is the cause of most whooping cough-related deaths.

VACCINE I am sure you are probably wondering how a nineteen-year-old girl immunized for whooping cough contracted the disease. This event, as surprising as it may sound, is not uncommon. The vaccine developed for whooping cough provides protection against the illness for 5-10 years after the last dose is given. The last dose is usually given to children when they enter kindergarten. This means that the vaccine wears off somewhere between the ages of 10 and 15. Also, the vaccine is only 70% to 90% effective in preventing whooping cough.

INCREASE IN CASES The attitude of most Americans is similar to that of my cousin, who asked, “Isn’t whooping cough some medieval illness?” Many years ago whooping cough was a severe illness. After the development of a vaccine the number of whooping cough cases rapidly declined. Recently the number of cases has increased. In 1980, there were approximately 2000 cases of whooping cough reported in the United States. By 1998, the number of whooping cough incidences increased to 7000. The reason for this increase has not yet been determined.

TRANSMISSION Avoiding exposure to an infectious disease is the best way to prevent contracting an illness. Whooping cough is transmitted through contact with respiratory droplets from the infected individual. Transmission of whooping cough is highest in the early stages before a diagnosis has been made; therefore, avoiding exposure is very difficult. Being exposed to the illness when you have a suppressed immune system increases the chances of contracting the disease.
         A therapeutic dose of erythromycin, a common antibiotic, given to close contacts of the infected person has proven effective in preventing the spread of whooping cough.
         Whooping cough can be a deadly disease for young children, and extremely traumatic for adolescents and adults. It is important that children are immunized at a young age to limit their risk of infection and to limit exposure to other people whose immunization has worn off.
         Whooping cough is the forgotten illness. It lay dormant for a while, but is awake now and searching for those who are susceptible to it. Don’t let your children fall captive to this disease—immunize them!

Three Stages
  • Catarrhal Stage: mild cough, sneezing, and runny nose
  • Paroxysmal Stage: repetitive coughing spells and a distinctive whoop and/or vomiting
  • Convalescent Stage: decrease in severity of cough and possible subsequent respiratory infections