Because I spent an entire weekend last year looking into pertussis, and what we would do if we had it, I’m going to outline what I learned below. As always, I’m a mom, not a medical professional, and this is not medical advice.
“I think he has this” she emailed me a link to the CDC’s whooping cough page after we had just spent all day indoors together the day before. Her kids and my kids shared drinks, raced sleeping bags down the stairs, and hugged and wrestled like champs. So many shared germs would have happened that day.
“Ahh! Okay, I bet we’ll get it, let me see what I can do” I said and then proceeded to let the kids watch way too much TV that day as I called our Dr. on call to schedule a test and proceeded to research what steps we would take if my kids did, in fact, have whooping cough. I’m super glad she told me as soon as she knew what was going on so that I had time to prepare, and would have been able to stop our family from spreading the disease before we knew we had it.
We didn’t end up catching it, which is odd since pertussis is supposed to be highly contagious. The other family did for sure have it (confirmed by a lab test). In my research of treatments, I found that whooping cough is actually more common than most people think, that the vaccine might not do what people are lead to believe it does and that this is one of the super rare cases that I would have used antibiotics in my kids.
I’d encourage any mom – vaccinating or not – to read this and possibly purchase some of the remedies to keep on hand. No, pertussis is not only caught among people who are not vaccinated (source, source, source), and it’s more common than most people realize. (Katie noted that it’s more common than people realize in this post as well)
Fully Vaccinated People Get (and Spread) Whooping Cough
Know the warning signs of pertussis, even if you are vaccinated you can still get pertussis and pass it on to others. The CDC recognizes that despite record high compliance with vaccinating, whooping cough is still on the rise (source). This suggests something isn’t working.
Like most families, we take precautions to avoid getting sick. When we come in from school, we wash our hands with soap and running water not hand sanitizer (study) for 20 seconds, we have soup every night with homemade stock (yes, your grandmother was right, homemade soup is good for your immune system), we take elderberry, we make getting enough sleep a priority.
But, in the case that we did have whooping cough, I didn’t want to be unprepared. So in the 24 hours between learning that we had been exposed, and getting the PCR test to learn that we did not, in fact, have it, I went into research mode.
How bad is whooping cough?
To be honest, whooping cough is pretty nasty. “The 100 day cough” is what it’s known as, with most cases lasting for 100 days. The severity ranges from a mild cough and cold-like symptoms, with a worse cough at night, to coughing fits all day and night so severe that the children or adults throw up after the cough.
The bacteria that causes whooping cough attach to the cilia in the lungs, preventing the cilia from doing their job of moving mucus up and out of the lungs. When this happens, the normal mucus produced by the lungs needs to be coughed up, which causes the coughing fits. Even after the ‘100 days’ when the cough is over, the cilia on the lungs are still damaged and the person who had whooping cough will be more likely to have more severe coughs for a full year later.
Some ‘vaccine preventable’ diseases are mild, but this one is nasty and I do want to avoid getting it if possible.
How is whooping cough spread?
Whooping cough is a bacterial illness that is spread through saliva that has the germs in it, this most commonly is from coughing and sneezing germ-laden saliva into the air and then someone else breathing it in.
How effective is the vaccine? Can vaccinated kids get it?
Though vaccine advertising and the nurse in the doctor’s office rarely are upfront about it, vaccines are never 100% effective, and often the studies done on their effectiveness are much less through than you would expect. The CDC itself says that 30% of adolescents and adults who have been vaccinated on schedule are not protected against the disease. (source).
Because of the bias in the healthcare industry, there is often misdiagnosis of whooping cough in vaccinated kids when healthcare providers rule out whooping cough because the person has been vaccinated, skewing the results further.
This is where anecdotal evidence is helpful – I personally know of a few families who have gotten pertussis, and even the children that had been vaccinated got it. Those vaccinated children weren’t diagnosed by their physician in most (or all, I don’t know the outcome of all of them) the cases, which will skew how effective the vaccine appears to be. So we can look at statistics and recommendations, but it’s important to realize the biases associated with them before we make our decisions.
How effective is the diagnostic test? Is it worth testing everyone?
There are three tests used in the US to test for whooping cough- the PCR, culture, and serum. They are for different stages of the illness.
The PCR test is designed for use within the first 3 weeks of cough onset. There is a higher rate of false-positive in this test. Results are ready within 24 hours. This is what we used (once exposed to whooping cough you need a negative test to return to school if you don’t vaccinate) and it gave us negative results.
When are antibiotics effective for pertussis?
As a rule, I avoid antibiotics in non-life-threatening circumstances for my family, so I was surprised to find that if we had tested positive for pertussis at the time we caught it, antibiotics would have a good options for our family.
Based on what I had learned about antibiotics and whooping cough we would have oped to do them if we tested positive. I would have chosen azythromycin because it is associated with less stomach upset than erythromycin (source).
- When started early enough, antibiotics shorten the duration and severity of the cough because the pertussis bacteria are slowed or stopped before too much damage to the cilia is done. (source) This appears to only work if caught in the first 2 weeks of illness, which is before the characteristic ‘whoop’ usually appears. We knew we were exposed so we tested for pertussis earlier than most people.
- When started at any time, they shorten the length of time you are contagious (100 days is a LONG time to avoid the public) (source)
The doctor offered prophylactic antibiotics as we waited for the test results, and I did decline those.
What natural methods are there to treat whooping cough?
Rather than run around town with possibly-contagious children, I hopped on amazon prime and purchased
- Lipsomal C (see more info about vitamin C for whooping cough here) – I use this when the kids get sick, and so far it’s seemed to keep me from getting more than a mild cold.
- Homeopathics: (see more info here)
- Chinese herbal remedy for cough (see more info here) – though we didn’t use this for pertussis, we do end up using it when we get a cough (and my lucky guests that are coughing get it as well) and it has worked VERY well!
My overall impression from whooping cough research:
Whooping cough presents in varying degrees, though, and isn’t always noticeable unless it’s a bad case. Because of this, it is more common than many people realize. Because of the stigma and judgment around those who choose not to vaccinate, many unvaccinated families are reluctant to share that they have whooping cough. Because of the over-trust in the effectiveness of vaccines, many families who do vaccinate also contact whooping cough and can spread it without realizing it. Antibiotics are useful for the disease when it is caught early to shorten the duration, and at any time to prevent transmission.
As always, check with your healthcare provider before making any decisions for your family. I am just a mom, this is not medical advice.
References cited above: