It’s not just “a persistent cough”

Well, here’s a terrible bit of reporting on the whooping cough epidemic in California from local CBS News.

Infants and young children are most vulnerable to whooping cough.

Symptoms vary by age but include a cough and runny nose for one or two weeks. The cough then worsens and children may experience rapid coughing spells that end with a “whooping” sound.

In infants, symptoms may not include an apparent cough, but could include episodes in which the child’s face turns red or purple.

In adults, symptoms may include a persistent cough for several weeks.

And that’s it. Sounds pretty harmless, doesn’t it – the cough gets worse and makes a funny sound, and/or the child might turn red or purple in the face. What CBS doesn’t say is that the rapid coughing means the child can’t inhale. The cough pushes the breath out and it keeps going and it’s rapid, so the person coughing can’t breathe in. That’s bad! It’s like drowning; it’s like being suffocated or strangled; it’s terrible and can be lethal. That “whooping” sound that seems so amusing is the desperate noise the cougher makes as she finally drags in a breath with the little strength she has left. It doesn’t sound anything like a whoop to me, it’s a roughly voiced gasp rather than a whoop.

Why would they describe the disease so incompletely and misleadingly?


  1. says

    I’ve never had pertussis, but I’ve made those “whooping” noises before when I’ve been really sick, because any time I get a respiratory infection it plays hell with my asthma. I’ve found there’s no way of communicating the awful fear and panic you feel when you’re literally unable to breath but your body keeps trying to cough.

  2. Richard Gorman says

    I had whooping cough in 1962. I was 21 years old. The feeling of not being able to inhale is terrible. For 4 months after I was “over” the infection, I would be subject to paroxysmic coughing when I stepped out of my warm car into the winter air. Half the time I would throw up my lunch in the street. I lost 40 lb in those 4 months from whoopng cough. I also cracked my ribs coughing.
    In 2013 I had to get the pertussis vaccine again to visit my grandchildren in San Francisco because of the epidemic of pertussis there. I think people who decide not to vaccinate their children are murdering other peoples children.

  3. rq says

    Had an (adult) friend down with the whooping cough, and in adults, it can present as a persistent cough… One that comes in doubling-over, near-fainting bouts, though, regularly, over several months. Now that’s persistent.

  4. Ben Wright says

    I had whooping cough when I was at secondary school, past the usual age to get it. It started as a normal cough that kept me off school.

    I coughed myself out, then when I tried to breathe in, my throat had somehow closed. My lungs were empty, and I couldn’t breathe in even a gasp. I ran downstairs, flailed at my mum. She tried the Heimlich, although of course I hadn’t swallowed anything, then rang 999. I threw up a little onto the carpet, just a panic reaction. Still couldn’t breathe in. Just when I thought I was going to pass out, whatever weird muscular spasm had caused it relaxed. I still got taken to hospital. They never really found out what was behind it – but presumably is was some combination of whooping cough, asthma and other allergies.

    After that initial scare, and I was back home, it would recur, although never as badly as the first time. Steam helped avoid having my throat close. I would cough so much that I coughed up spots of blood. I developed a sort of instinctual technique for breathing again after that initial attempted in-draw would fail. In hindsight, it’s pretty terrifying.

    But that first time my throat closed, over two decades ago, when I was leaning over on the old black chair in front of what I was drawing in Duluxe Paint on the Amiga, on that desk next to the window in the back bedroom (after we’d got the better TV for it), I remember that incredibly vividly. It’s the most terrifying moment of my entire life.

    I’m not sure whether I’d been vaccinated for it as a child or not – I think even if so I might have been past the age where it would have worn off.

    So, to all parents who choose not to vaccinate for whooping cough:

    Fuck you.

  5. latsot says

    @Ben #3

    Fuck you.


    I never had pertussis. I was vaccinated. My sister did and wasn’t. I’d have been about four, she about six. It’s not something an uncomprehending four year old wants to see happen to their big sister. I can barely imagine how she felt about it.

    There must have been a good reason why she wasn’t vaccinated. Maybe she had a bad reaction, maybe there was some sort of mistake. My mother had been a nurse and seen children die from whooping cough. Growing up, I certainly felt like I was constantly having needles stuck in me (although to be fair, I was all the time doing things like falling in rusty barbed wire, being bitten by foxes etc. so they were mostly tetanus shots (plus a rabies near-miss)). They couldn’t have been more pro-vaccine. And of course, this was long before celebrity trumped medical degrees.

    So for one reason or another she slipped through the net and the results were terrifying for everyone if fortunately not tragic. It might have been a mistake by my parents, by doctors or health administrators or a betrayal of my sister by her own body, I don’t know. But those parents who fucking invite that kind of terror upon a child because of their own, easily curable ignorance (and/or perhaps incurable ego)? Ben is right: Fuck You.

  6. says

    Nathaniel @ 1 – I’ve had that only a couple of times, and that was enough that I can second what you say (and what everyone else says). There’s just nothing like it, the endless cough pushing OUT while you’re desperately trying to suck some air IN.

    I think I’ll have to do a separate post JUST to collect all the horror stories in one place.

  7. Tigger_the_Wing, Back home =^_^= says

    My worst bout of whooping cough was in 1966, when I was nearly nine.

    I agree with everyone here – that moment when the coughing has almost completely depleted one’s lungs of air, and yet one’s body insists on more coughing and won’t let one inhale is the most terrifying feeling, exactly like drowning whilst surrounded by air. I have incomplete immunity to whooping cough, and have suffered from bouts of it (though not quite so badly as the first one) every time an epidemic happens.

    But the most terrifying moments of my life were watching my daughter trying to survive pertussis at the age of two. She had not been vaccinated (despite my wishes*) because one of her brothers had absence seizures after his vaccinations and the doctors said that it was contra-indicated (this was the mid-eighties).

    I had to nurse her myself, despite being sick with it and nursing another child ill with it (my eldest, who also has incomplete immunity despite being fully vaccinated) because the hospitals were full. Her fever was so high that cold flannels became hot flannels after half a minute in contact with her skin. Those frantic seconds every half an hour or so, when she had a coughing fit and couldn’t inhale – I wouldn’t wish those on my worst enemy; even as a witness, let alone a sufferer. Day in, day out, for over a week – I lost track of time.

    Anyone who would voluntarily risk that for themselves is astonishingly short-sighted; that they would risk inflicting it on their children is mind-bogglingly cruel.


    *I begged them “If the vaccination caused the petit mal (as it was then called) what the hell could the full-blown disease do?” By the time I had the twins, medical opinion had done an about-turn, and they are fully vaccinated – and without my having to fight with them, as I was quite prepared to do!

  8. Tsu Dho Nimh says

    This makes me wonder if a never-ending “bronchitis” I had in the 1990s might have been whooping cough or it’s less nasty cousin. I got the DTP shot as a child, and a couple times as an adult, but had not been given any boosters for a while because I wasn’t working in hospitals.

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