Monday, September 05, 2005

When Baby's Cough is Serious

If you are like I was when my daughter was very young, you think that having gotten the pertussis (whopping cough) vaccine for the baby was assurance that the nasty cough wouldn't be a problem. Unfortunately that is not necessarily true, and children can indeed still suffer with whooping cough and it is as serious as it ever was in the past.

That's not to say that the vaccine is not working. Generally given along with vaccines for diphtheria and tetanus as one injection (DPT), the pertussis vaccine has helped keep the number of cases down dramatically. Making sure that your baby is given the entire series of all vaccines is the first step to making sure you never have to deal with this potentially deadly childhood problem (especially dangerous for infants before they have had the injections).

So how can you tell if your child has this bacterial infection? It will generally start with a sore throat and an appearance of fatigue. There will be a fever for about a week, but it is not a high fever. A runny nose may be present. In a couple of days, the actual cough starts, but it sounds like a normal cough and you will probably still not be concerned at this point. It will continue for about a week to ten days and after a while, the phlegm produced will be sticky and clear.

After about the first two weeks, choking will start to appear with the cough. The child will choke for a minute or two and sometimes vomit at the same time. He or she will give the impression that breathing is not possible. Keep in mind that between these bouts with the coughing, the child seems to be feeling well.

There will be anywhere from two attacks a day to dozens. In the respite periods between attacks, there may not be any coughing, so parents usually assume that the "cold" is finally over.

Only half of children who suffer this disease actually make the "whooping" sound when they are finally able to breathe again. The periods of not breathing during an attack can cause fainting or the child may turn blue.

The whooping cough will last anywhere from three weeks to a few months. It may be a good idea to videotape or record onto cassette the sound of the child's cough. (NOT instead of helping when he or she needs help, of course, just turn the recorder on while you are helping and comforting!) The reason for that is because when a doctor listens to the lungs, there is no congestion that shows up and you may need to establish for the doctor how bad the cough actually is when it hits.

It's just for children, right? Not true. In the past (before 1950) it was often children under 5 who caught whooping cough most. Now, though, it is children 5 to 11 years and then adults are next on the list, so no one is completely immune.

Although a very small number of children die annually from pertussis, even one child is too many. The deaths that occur are generally in children who haven't had the vaccine, either by parental choice or because they are too young to have received the first injection.