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Symptoms of whooping cough

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Keyworth study of whooping cough

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Updated March 2019

Whooping cough causes bouts of coughing that usually go on for at least 3 weeks. In each attack you feel as if you are choking and suffocating. It frightens onlookers as much as the sufferer. These choking attacks occur on average a dozen times a day and between the attacks there is usually no coughing at all.

Help your doctor to diagnose it by recording an attack on a smartphone.

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Whooping cough in teens

Whooping cough in babies 

Whooping cough (pertussis) in a recognizable form evolves over a period of 2 weeks. It usually starts as a sore throat with a mild feeling of tiredness and being unwell, that within 2 or 3 days turns into a (usually) dry, intermittent "ordinary" cough. This persists, but may wax and wane over the next 7 to 10 days by which time the cough may become a little productive of small amounts of sticky clear phlegm, and occasional intense bouts of choking coughing start to occur.

Fever is usually limited to the first week and is only mild. There may be a runny nose like a cold in the early stages. After the first 2 weeks, the characteristics described below are predominant.

Major Symptoms (usually from 2 weeks onwards).  Attacks of a choking cough that lasts from 1 to 2 minutes, often with vomiting, severe facial congestions and a feeling or appearance of suffocation.  Between these attacks of coughing the sufferer appears and usually feels perfectly well. These choking attacks of coughing happen as little as twice a day or as many as fifty. Between attacks ('paroxysms' is the technical name) the sufferer may not cough at all. 'Whooping' is a noise that comes from the voice box after a paroxysm when the sufferer is suddenly able to take a breath in again.

Whooping cough is also notable for producing very thick, sticky, clear and difficult to shift phlegm. It is sometimes stringy. It is also common to produce lots of saliva after a coughing fit.

Only about 50% of whooping cough sufferers 'whoop' but this is where the name comes from. Sometimes the patient stops breathing after a severe bout of coughing, long enough to go blue. Occasionally the patient faints as well. Recovery is usually rapid however, and back to normal within a couple of minutes

Whooping cough lasts at least 3 weeks and can frequently go on for 3 months or even longer. I am told that in China it is called the 100 day cough. Interestingly, it is now frequently referred to in the West as the '100 day cough'.

Late symptoms. Whooping cough resolves by a slow reduction in the number of choking attacks. From the time the attacks start to reduce in number, to the time they finish, it may be roughly from 2 weeks to 2 months or more. The average case of whooping cough lasts about 7 weeks. But for people with whooping cough visiting this site, it is likely to last longer, because only more severe cases are likely to get here.

The crucial point for clinical diagnosis is attacks of severe choking cough separated by long intervals of NO COUGHING AT ALL. There is immense variation in severity and duration of the illness. Most cases go undiagnosed because the doctor never hears the patient cough and cannot believe it is severe as he or she is being told. And listening with a stethoscope indicates normal lungs in whooping cough.

If whooping cough seems to come back again just when you seem to be getting over it, it usually means you have just caught a viral cough/cold. I brings the whooping cough symptoms back temporarily. You are not infectious for whooping cough in these circumstances.

Therefore I recommend you record or video a severe coughing attack on a smartphone and show your doctor along with my printout for doctors.

Tips for health professionals making a clinical diagnosis 

There is an animated video on YouTube illustrating the mechanisms of damage by B. pertussis to the respiratory tract. Here is the link