Two Things You May Not Know About Whooping Cough

Around this time last year, our infant daughter was in the hospital with pertussis (i.e., whooping cough). My wife wanted to write a blog post about this dangerous disease, which some countries call “The 100 Day Cough” (and they aren’t kidding, folks). I’ll let Shannon share our experience, and how it might help protect you and those you love.


We were just getting over the flu (I had picked it up at Desolation of Smaug, which makes that film doubly worthless to me). My sweet two-month old Elanor had a few days off from coughing before she started again. Nothing too serious, really—just like a cold. But it never went away. I took her to the pediatrician, and he said it wasn’t bad enough to be pertussis; I should go home and lay my fears to rest. Two nights later we were in the hospital after Elanor temporarily stopped breathing during a coughing fit and gasped out several “whoops” just afterwards.

We had a mild case of pertussis, it turns out. Even better, when I tearfully asked the doctor at the hospital if Elanor’s life was in danger, she stopped just short of rolling her eyes (a gesture which, at the time, I found very comforting). “It’s very rare to die of whooping cough if you’re here,” she said. “Mostly the kids who die are the ones who are too little to get over it by themselves, and their parents try waiting it out too long.”

So Elanor’s life was not in danger. Nonetheless, we were in the hospital for a week. Here is a synopsis of that week: I started whooping just one day after Elanor. Cap got food poisoning. We missed my grandmother’s funeral. Three or four times the staff of the entire floor rushed into our room because Elanor was turning blue. I sprained a rib coughing. (Then a guy with the spiritual gift of healing prayed for me and boom, it was healed! But that’s another story, probably entitled, “I grew up Baptist. I don’t believe in miraculous gifts… wait one of them just worked on me.”) We received food and coffee from loving friends, excellent and compassionate medical care,…aaaaand the kind of bill you’d expect to rack up by staying a week in the hospital.

Once you get whooping cough (and you like to do your research, like me) you learn a few things. Two things, actually, that I’d like everyone to know:

1. The vaccination prevents you from getting the disease. It does not necessarily prevent you from transmitting the disease.

Let me be straight with you: I am not an anti-vaxxer. I am not trying to start a vaccination debate. I learned this from my pediatrician, who always errs on the side of caution, and my reading has confirmed it: people who have the vaccination can still carry and transmit pertussis. The vaccine’s “severity” has been decreased so that it no longer gives herd immunity (but it also no longer gives as many seizures! Yay!). In fact, if you do the incubation-period math (every mom’s favorite math), we believe the person we caught pertussis from had the vaccine.

2. Whooping cough acts like a normal cough for the first two weeks.

You heard me right! For the first two weeks you have pertussis, you will think it is a common cold (albeit a worsening one) or bronchitis. Only after the first two weeks will you start whooping or coughing so hard you vomit.

For those two weeks, you are still contagious. Every time you cough in the grocery store, thinking you have a cold, you are spreading the pertussis bacteria. My apologies to those of you whom I may have infected while grocery shopping during my two weeks.

What are the implications of these two facts? Here’s what they are for me.

If you or your child is coughing, please keep yourselves away from other children.

I know that really stinks. I know it means no Sunday School, no much-needed play dates, no fun ever, period. I also know it’s impossible to do entirely: you have to buy food, after all. But as much as it is possible, it would be a courtesy to the mom of the two-month old who hasn’t yet had her vaccination to safeguard her family as much as possible. It shows real care. I LOVE it when my friend texts me and tells me her kid is sick so I can’t come over. She is protecting us.

And this one is most important: DON’T TOUCH MY BABY.

I will not tell you this to your face, because there really is no nice way to do so. But when you reach for my baby in the grocery store or at church, I am tempted to slap your hand away. I don’t slap your hand because if I did, you would probably think, “What a paranoid jerk.” Yes—I am a paranoid jerk whose daughter caught whooping cough from someone touching her face.

Here’s how you can be polite to a new mom during flu season: don’t touch her babies. Just don’t. She will love you. She will love your understanding of, and avoidance of, the awkward situation most people place her in every time she takes that baby out of the house. She will love you when you pull out your hand sanitizer and douse your hands with it right then and there before you ask to squeeze that baby’s cheeks.

Here are things that people say to put me at ease when they touch my baby:

1.     “I just washed my hands.”
My mental response: Define “just.” Does it mean five minutes ago? Does it mean thirty minutes ago? How many door handles have you touched since then?
My real response: Smile awkwardly. Get away as quickly as possible.

2.     “My cough is only allergies.”
My mental response: Oh really. What are your symptoms? I want a full list. Are you assuming based on your anecdotal knowledge, or have you gone to a doctor and received the literal diagnosis, “It’s just allergies?”
My physical response: “Oh well as long as it’s just allergies.” Smile awkwardly. Get away as quickly as possible.

Please, please, friends—don’t put moms in this incredibly awkward situation. True, not all of them are as paranoid as I am. But not all of them have had whooping cough, either.