Four things I learned in a week with whooping cough

It’s been seven days since we fronted up at our GP with our two daughters – aged 2.5 years, and 5 months – to politely suggest an alternative diagnosis for their persistent, chronic and increasingly scary bouts of coughing. And here I am sleep-deprived, intensely caffeinated, and a little bit mad.

Despite both being fully vaccinated, Dr Google and Nurse YouTube suggested the girls may have whooping cough. Our GP was skeptical, as the girls both appeared well during consults and he had never had a chance to hear them actually cough. No, that pleasure is reserved for us parents at night time (a phenomenon I learned a lot about during our nighttime stay in emergency with our baby). However, to his credit, the GP took our concerns seriously and performed the test.

Two days later I received a (somewhat sheepish) phone call advising we needed to bring the girls in straight away. Oh and also expect a call from the Health Department and essentially quarantine ourselves, because yep – it was pertussis (whooping cough).

We’ve since started both girls on antibiotics, quarantined ourselves at home, had another (vaccinated) adult family member test positive for pertussis, endured a hospital visit when our youngest developed a temperature (indicating a secondary virus) and brief apnoeas following cough fits at night, and been up to both girls multiple times a night now for weeks.

But like just about anything in life, there’s some lessons to be learned.

So here it is, the four things I’ve learned this week from being in lockdown with whooping cough:

1. There’s no cure for whooping cough

When our GP finally diagnosed whooping cough, he almost cheerfully wrote out the scripts for antibiotics for both girls and informed us that after five days, they’d no longer be considered infectious and it was onwards and upwards from here.

Perhaps I wasn’t listening properly or I was just looking for a positive, but I figured the antibiotics would help the girls get better. It was on Saturday night as I explained to the paedeatrician in emergency that our baby had been on antibiotics now for three days and was getting worse, not better, that she gently explained “well the antibiotics only help with reducing the amount of time they are infectious. They don’t actually reduce the symptoms or help them recover”.

Oh. So what to do for my toddler who wakes hysterical unable to breathe in the middle of the night, or my baby who needs to be quickly propped upright when she wakes with a violent coughing fit every hour or so?

Answer: nothing. Hold them, comfort them, monitor them that they do quickly catch their breath. If not, call an ambulance. In hospital they’ll be treated with oxygen, ventolin or adrenaline depending on how bad things are. That’s it. That’s all you can do.

Had we known this, we would probably still have opted to take the antibiotics. We have family with a new premmie baby, and also believe it’s important we do what we can to stop the spread of whooping cough in the community. However it was sobering to know that there’s nothing else we can do to actually help the girls recover. We just have to wait it out.

The logical question, then is how long will they take to recover?

2. It’s called the ‘100 day cough’

If one more person tells me that whooping cough is also known as the 100 day cough (one more charitable person opted for ’90 day cough’)… I may loose my mind.

Because I think ‘cough’ doesn’t do it justice. It’s a traumatic experience where my husband and I have to jump up at the first sound of distress, worrying that either child is going to injure themselves, or choke, or simply be incredibly distraught at the experience of having an intense coughing fit multiple times a night. Last night it took nearly half an hour to console our toddler after she woke from a deep sleep with a particularly bad coughing fit, and bub is waking up at least every hour or so. Coughing is particularly bad at night, as the muscles in the chest and lungs relax and irritated airways are compressed and blocked.

I’m told they will gradually improve as the weeks go by, though a simple cold may set them back and reactivate their symptoms. Just when I thought my five month old might be ready to start sleeping longer at night…. alas, not quite yet!

Finally sleeping after a long, long night of coughing fits

Let me tell you, this whooping cough business is not a pleasant experience.

3. There is such a thing as ‘vaccine-resistant whooping cough’

The various doctors I saw at the hospital over the weekend all looked decidedly unhappy to hear that both girls, and the other adult in our family who has contracted whooping cough, were all up to date with their vaccinations and boosters. One doctor observed “we saw a lot of vaccine-resistant whooping cough last year – I hope it’s not the same this year”.

This is a very scary situation to be in. As far as I can tell, there’s no reason that here in Australia we should be dealing with significant outbreaks of a vaccine-preventable illness like pertussis. And it’s a serious infection we should not underestimate – about 1 in 200 infants under 6 months who contract pertussis will die.

And I’m not gonna lie – there was a part of me that was pretty mad. As I paced around outside the procedure room where my five month old was screaming the house down while being cannulated so they could take blood for testing, I had a ‘why us’ moment. We’ve done the right thing, we’ve vaccinated our kids. We’ve got them on strong antibiotics to stop them spreading the infection and we notified as many people and places that we’d visited in recent weeks as we possibly could. Members of our extended family had even opted for precautionary antibiotics to stop the spread further. We’re totally happy to do our bit, yet here I am pacing around listening to my baby screaming.

Data for our local area shows vaccination rates as low as 85.7%. And with an infection like pertussis, apparently vaccination rates need to be very high in order to achieve herd immunity, because it can be a much more mild infection in adults and so often goes unrecognised.

I’ve never given serious consideration to not vaccinating my kids. But if I ever needed convincing, the last week – battling two cases of whooping cough which were not as bad as they could have been in unvaccinated kids and/or young babies – was all the convincing I needed. I honestly don’t want to consider what our experience may have been like if the infection had entered our household a few months ago, while our baby was just a few weeks old.


This one deserves full capitals. Because this is serious. Vaccines haven’t been developed for diseases like pertussis just for kicks – they are deadly diseases that need to be managed at an individual and community level.  I firmly believe we owe it to those who cannot be vaccinated or who are at higher risk – like our young nephew who was a premmie baby and is yet to have any vaccinations, or the stranger in the street with a compromised immune system – to do everything we can to prevent the spread of these diseases.

While in emergency over the weekend, we were cared for by a great team of doctors and nurses. One nurse shared with me her thoughts on vaccination:

“I have four kids, two with autism. Vaccination doesn’t cause autism. Vaccinate your kids.”

Simple as that.



3 thoughts on “Four things I learned in a week with whooping cough

  1. Excellent writing Jen.
    My youngest was hospitalized with this and it’s frightening.
    Thanks for your insight.

  2. Beautifully written Jen. As an adult who has had pertussis in the last 5 years, I can sympathise with the difficulty of having the condition but certainly have no idea what you are going through. If I ever have children I will ensure I vaccinate. My thoughts are with you and your family.

  3. An interesting and extremely important piece of the puzzle is that those who are recently vaccinated have been known to spread the disease as they can carry the infection in their throat asymptomatically and pass it onto others without realising. (It is not just the unvaccinated). This is vitally important to understand because there is an influx of “cocooning” happening around premmie and newborn babies which may be exacerbating the problem.

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