Whooping Cough – Not just for children anymore…

My super-sticky throat with a completely unproductive cough is finally abating!  However, for a while there, I’d get these choking coughing fits where I couldn’t get a breath in because it felt like the phlegm had completely coated and blocked the windpipe entrance and I ended up making sounds like the following (click on it): Kimm’s cough.

Most often these choking coughs would happen in the most embarrassing places possible.  I had one coughing fit at the airport on a layover in Phoenix, where I quickly found myself surrounded by equal numbers of do-gooders pounding my back and stay-away-from-me-you-typhoid-Mary persons backing away and vacating their seats.  Another time it happened at my dad’s office.  I tried to surreptitiously get to their kitchen to get some hot water (that seemed to help the most) but of course it’s hard to be stealthy when you’re coughing louder than a jumbo jet.   Two of his staff burst into the room and plied me with cold water, warm water,  and salt water, in order to calm the cough.

Turns out I had Whooping Cough!  Whooping cough?!  I thought that was a little kid disease.  Turns out it’s not, and that despite childhood vaccinations, up to 7% of adults get it each year (albeit a milder case than if unvaccinated; then you may not even “whoop” when coughing).   In fact, research has shown that:

In the developed world, where most children are immunized, whooping cough most commonly occurs in teenagers and adults; Whooping cough is estimated to be 100 times more common than official statistics show; Most doctors fail to diagnose whooping cough.

In case you’re wondering exactly what whooping cough is, here’s an official definition:

Whooping cough (also known as pertussis) is a severe respiratory system infection caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis. It is characterized by severe coughing spells that may end in a “whooping” sound when the infected person inhales.  Whooping cough symptoms can last for weeks to months, and it has been termed the “100-day cough” because of its long duration and severity.

One way to tell if you have whooping cough (besides the choking cough with whooping inhales) is if over-the-counter medicines do nothing(!!), absolutely nothing.  I tried expectorants, suppressants, decongestants, antihistamines, pain relief, you name it, and none of the medicines had any effect on the cough.  Here’s one doctor’s cheery assessment:

For the average case of whooping cough there is no treatment likely to make a difference to the course of the illness or materially reduce the symptoms. It will generally take its course no matter what. Attempts to get benefit from bronchodilators, cough suppressants or antibiotics are generally futile.

One thing that does seem to lessen both the time frame in which you’re infectious and  the amount of time you have the cough is antibiotics to kill the pertussis bacteria.  Fortunately, I thought I had a throat infection so my doctor prescribed antibiotics soon after I got sick so hopefully this will result in a 60-day cough instead of the 100-day cough. After three days with antibiotics and about three weeks without antibiotics, you are no longer infectious, which I bet the passengers on Ethiopia Airlines flight #501 on January 26th would have liked to have known.  After coughing for about 10 hours straight on the 14 hour flight from Washington, D.C., to Addis Ababa, a woman stopped me on my way back from the bathroom (I always tried to rush to the restroom every time a particularly bad coughing bout came on) and asked, “are you the lady with the cough?”  I said yes and she pushed some drugs on me and guaranteed they would help.  At this point I was still hoping that I’d find the magic medication that would relieve my symptoms.  This South-African-produced medicine promptly knocked me out for the last four hours of the flight so I don’t remember if I stopped coughing or not, but the drug pusher smiled at me as we deplaned so it must have.

Now that I’ve had whooping cough, I really, really feel bad for babies if they get it.  They can’t run and get a drink of water and apparently they get it much worse (and it’s pretty deadly for them too).  Even if you don’t believe in vaccines, whooping cough is one you want to give an exception to.  I agree with a lot of my friends who believe that the number of vaccines recommended these days is overkill, but there are a few diseases for which the risks of vaccines are greatly outweighed by the risk of death.  The problem in today’s first world nations is that people don’t fear common childhood diseases because they don’t see them – precisely because the vast majority of children are vaccinated, thereby protecting other children and creating something called “herd immunity“.  However, believe me you, if whooping cough (or diphtheria or smallpox) came to your remote village and wiped out one-third of the babies under 12 months (as happens all too frequently in developing countries), you’d walk for miles on broken glass to make sure your baby was vaccinated.

I hadn’t met any other adults who (knowingly) had whooping cough so it’s been hard to explain just how sticky the phlegm is and how violent the cough can be.  Well, this past Saturday night a friend threw a birthday party for me(!), a colleague of Thom’s named Nick, and another friend of his named Jaco from South Africa.  Jaco came and found me hiding out in the host’s dining room because I really don’t like large parties and started talking to me as if I knew him.  I finally said, “Do I know you?” He said, no, but that his wife (who was a baker) followed my blog and had made the rainbow cake the way it was supposed to be made (see this for my failed attempt).  While we were talking he texted her and she texted back that when she came to visit she would teach me how to make the rainbow cake properly (I’m holding you to that Julianne!).  Anyways, somehow we got on the topic of coughing and discovered we were both (still) recovering from whooping cough.  Jaco sounds like he had it a hundred times worse than me as he passed out twice from asphyxiating from the cough and threw up God knows how many times (the cough can get so violent that the gagging reflex kicks in).  I asked him how long until the throat stickiness went away, hoping that he would say one month, and he said six months(!).  Six months?!?!?!  There is no way my cough is lingering six months (you hear that cough?! No way!).

So, I’m continuing my regimen of daily Vitamin D building (15 minutes sun exposure), lots of Vitamin C, zinc and magnesium, and lots of brightly colored fruits and vegetables.  Take that whooping cough!

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About Kimm X Jayne

Gravatar Photograph from the exceptionally talented Ben Heine. http://www.flickr.com/photos/benheine/3794765860/
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9 Responses to Whooping Cough – Not just for children anymore…

  1. lisa says:

    Oh Kimm, that is horrible!!! WC is one of the worst diseases and we have seen a resurgence of it in most of the US States. California had a bad breakout last year, but we’re seeing it on the rise in Ohio too. They are now recommending revaccination for all adults for WC. There are questions as to the longevity of the vaccine working or to changes in the Bordetella bacteria’s antigenic receptors. Then again, our dog Higgins is vaccinated what–every year or 2 for bordetella, so that probably means that my vaccine has long worn off too. Okay–I”m making an appt to get revaccinated today. Obviously I need to–and am heeding your warning. Please feel better!!! Sending you white light.

  2. Joanne Hutchinson says:

    Thank you so much for that explanation. Both my sons have a “bark” like cough when then get one. It sounds awful and scares me but that is how they cough. My sister is the same. I am wondering if it is bronchitis. I will have to look it up now.
    I had always listened for a “whoop” and really didn’t know what it sounded like. Thanks to your audio, I now know.
    I hope you are feeling better soon and that cough hears what you wrote!

  3. Brooke Goode says:

    god this sounds awful. where do you think you picked it up?

    • Kimm X Jayne says:

      I think my immune system was just weakened by the long travel from Africa to the west coast. I suspect I picked it up in London. When do you come back?

      • Maureen Witte says:

        OMG, whooping cough! I’ve always thought I had it when I was 12 years old. It was horrible and I was sick for months. Of course, I went to school, etc. the whole time. We didn’t go to doctors “just on a whim” in those days. I remember I was an attendant at Betty’s wedding, and I struggled through the whole ceremony, just trying very hard not to start “whopping!” Sometimes I wonder how I lived this long, ha! It was awful! I am so sorry that you had to deal with that! Read an article a few days ago that many pediatritions (sp?) here in the USA will not keep patients when the parents will not have their children immunized. They’re concerned with “waiting room” contagion!

        • Kimm X Jayne says:

          Once people have had it they know EXACTLY what I’m talking about re the choking cough. It’s so hard to stifle it and then it makes it worse, doesn’t it. (That’s what happened to me in the airport. I tried to stifle it and then I was really gasping for air. Maybe Dr. Stephanie (Rees) will find a cure, since she’s almost a pediatrician…

  4. Unknown says:

    I had group b strep with my second daughter and was offered the antibiotics throughout shipping and delivery and every thing was good.
    I have it once more now with my 4th baby and i have no problems about this my midwives took
    good care of me last time and that i have full religion in my midwives to deal with me
    yet again.

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