Home Health Fears of school chaos as children suspected of having whooping cough must be excluded for up to 3 weeks amid the “worst outbreak in 40 years” which has sparked calls to run scary adverts to boost vaccine uptake.

Fears of school chaos as children suspected of having whooping cough must be excluded for up to 3 weeks amid the “worst outbreak in 40 years” which has sparked calls to run scary adverts to boost vaccine uptake.

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Fears of school chaos as children suspected of having whooping cough must be excluded for up to 3 weeks amid the "worst outbreak in 40 years" which has sparked calls to run scary adverts to boost vaccine uptake.

What is whooping cough?

Whooping cough is a serious and highly contagious respiratory disease that infects the lungs and airways.

Also called whooping cough, it is caused by the bacteria Bordetella pertussis. After or between coughing attacks, patients may gasp for air and produce the characteristic “screaming” noise.

The illness is also sometimes called “100-day cough” because it can last 6 to 12 weeks.

It is more serious in babies under six months, as it can cause breathing difficulties, dehydration, pneumonia and seizures.

It is generally less severe in older children and adults.

What are the symptoms?

The first signs of whooping cough are usually similar to those of a cold, such as a runny nose and sore throat, although a high temperature is uncommon.

After about a week, coughing fits will begin that last a few minutes and get worse at night.

Many babies and younger children with whooping cough have accompanying coughing and screaming spells, but not everyone does.

And sometimes babies don’t cough or scream like older children do, but they may show signs of difficulty breathing.

The infection is usually milder in adolescents and adults than in infants and children, especially in those who have been vaccinated.

How is it spread?

Whooping cough is very contagious and can be transmitted through small droplets of fluid from the nose or mouth of an infected person.

It can be transmitted when an infected person sneezes, coughs or laughs. Others can get it by inhaling the droplets or getting the bacteria on their hands and then touching their mouth or nose.

Symptoms usually appear 7 to 10 days after exposure. Symptoms may appear up to 21 days after a person becomes infected.

People are most contagious in the early stages and until about two weeks after the cough starts.

Why are cases increasing?

According to the UKHSA, more than 2,700 cases of whooping cough have been reported across the country so far in 2024, with 1,319 cases reported in March alone.

This compares to 858 cases throughout 2023.

Whooping cough cases peak every four years or so, but the pandemic saw a dramatic drop in the incidence of whooping cough and other respiratory infections as a result of less mixing of people.

Professor Andrew Preston, from the Milner Center for Evolution at the University of Bath, said cases had increased since the end of restrictions and a peak year was expected to emerge soon.

Childhood vaccination rates have fallen compared to pre-pandemic levels, from more than 96 percent coverage to just under 93 percent last year.

Likewise, acceptance of the maternal booster vaccine fell from a high of 70 percent to less than 60 percent.

This has left many more babies and young children susceptible to infection.

Who can receive the vaccine?

The vaccine is usually offered three times, even to pregnant women, as it can protect the baby during the first weeks of life.

Doctors suggest that the best time to do it is shortly after the 16th week of pregnancy.

The 6-in-1 vaccine is then offered to babies at 8, 12 and 16 weeks of age and a booster at 3 years and 4 months.

Older children and adults are not routinely vaccinated, except during pregnancy or during an outbreak of whooping cough.

My child is vaccinated, can he still get whooping cough?

Yes. Vaccines are never 100 percent effective, but they offer the best defense against the disease.

As with Covid injections, even if they don’t prevent your child from getting the disease, it will most likely be less serious.

In addition to reducing overall severity, vaccinated people are likely to suffer from cough for a shorter period.

Can whooping cough be treated?

Yes, although the treatment depends on the age and the time that has passed since we contracted the infection.

Children younger than 6 months who are very sick and people with severe symptoms are often hospitalized for treatment.

People diagnosed during the first 3 weeks of infection may be prescribed antibiotics to take at home.

These will help stop the spread of the infection to other people, but may not reduce symptoms.

Those who have had whooping cough for more than 3 weeks will usually not need treatment because they are no longer contagious and antibiotics are unlikely to help.

For fever you should rest, drink plenty of fluids and pain relievers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen.

Cough medicines are unlikely to be effective and are often not suitable for young children, so they should be avoided.

What should I do if I am worried that my child has it?

First, call your GP or NHS 111 and explain your symptoms.

They may then arrange for you or your child to come for testing and treatment.

If you or your child are taking antibiotics for whooping cough, you should be careful not to spread the infection to others.

The NHS recommends that infected people stay away from childcare, school or work until 2 days after starting antibiotic treatment or, if not taking antibiotics, 3 weeks after coughing attacks start.

Children’s mouths and noses should be covered with a disposable tissue when coughing or sneezing and these should be discarded immediately.

Hands should be washed periodically with soap and water.

My son is not vaccinated. Am I too late?

No. It is best to get vaccinated early, but they can still get whooping cough as part of the 6-in-1 vaccine up to age 10.

Babies receive 3 doses of the 6-in-1 vaccine as part of the NHS vaccination schedule at 8, 12 and 16 weeks.

They are also offered a 4-in-1 preschool reinforcement, for ages 3 years and 4 months. If your child has not received their 6-in-1 vaccines, please contact your GP.

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