Whooping cough outbreak in the UK: What you need to know as five babies die from infection

More than 2,700 whooping cough cases have been reported across England so far in 2024

Abi Jackson
Thursday 09 May 2024 10:20
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Five babies have died after being diagnosed with whooping cough in England, with a warning being issued on the disease.

More than 2,700 whooping cough cases have been reported across England so far in 2024 – more than three times the number recorded in the whole of last year.

New UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) figures show there were 2,793 cases reported to the end of March.

That compares to 858 cases for the whole of 2023.

The UKHSA said between January and the end of March, there have been five infant deaths.

UKHSA consultant epidemiologist Dr Gayatri Amirthalingam said: “Whooping cough can affect people of all ages, but for very young babies it can be extremely serious.

“Our thoughts and condolences are with those families who have so tragically lost their baby.”

In March alone, some 1,319 cases were reported, according to the provisional data.

Five babies have died this year in England after being diagnosed with whooping cough (PA) (PA Archive)

Also known as pertussis, or the “hundred-day cough”, the bacterial infection can be particularly serious for very young children, for whom it can even be fatal in very rare cases.

Numbers do tend to go up every few years, and it’s believed the rise in social contact following the pandemic is playing a part right now.

Always consult your doctor for an accurate diagnosis and treatment advice, and seek urgent help if someone is experiencing any signs of breathing difficulties. 

What does whooping cough sound like?

While many coughs are caused by the common cold virus, whooping cough is a bacterial infection (known medically as pertussis).

“Whooping cough often appears as a normal cough or cold at first, however you may notice symptoms intensifying after a week or two,” says Dr Kathryn Basford from online doctor, Zava. “While a typical cough clears up in a few weeks and feels mild, whooping cough can linger for much longer, even up to a few months.

“The key difference to look out for between a mild cough and whooping cough is the intensity. Whooping cough comes in strong coughing fits, especially at night, and most notably includes a high-pitched ‘whoop’ as you struggle to breathe. It can even lead to vomiting, a bright red face, and difficulty breathing.

“And unlike a regular cough, whooping cough is much more contagious. If you haven’t received a vaccination for whooping cough, it’s definitely worth seeing a doctor to explore getting one. Early diagnosis and treatment are crucial to prevent complications and spreading.”

How do you catch whooping cough?

“Whooping cough is a highly contagious respiratory illness, meaning it spreads through the air via tiny droplets expelled when an infected person coughs or sneezes. These droplets can be inhaled by others nearby,” says Basford.

“Additionally, the bacteria can linger on surfaces touched by an infected individual, creating indirect transmission if someone else touches the surface and then touches their eyes, nose, or mouth. This is why frequent hand washing and maintaining good respiratory hygiene, like covering your mouth when you cough or sneeze, are crucial in preventing the spread.”

Experts have called on pregnant women to get the whooping cough vaccine to protect their babies (PA) (PA Archive)

Is whooping cough contagious to adults?

Basford explains: “While whooping cough is most commonly associated with young children, it is still possible for adults to catch it. Adults typically experience milder symptoms than children.”

Can whooping cough be serious? 

“Whooping cough can definitely be serious, especially for young babies who haven’t yet been vaccinated. Younger children especially can struggle to breathe during coughing fits, leading to complications like pneumonia and in some rarer, more severe cases, death,” Basford cautions. “Even in adults, the constant coughing can be debilitating, causing sleep problems and making daily activities tough.”

How else can you prevent it?

“The best way to avoid a serious whooping cough is with vaccination – the vaccine is included in the routine NHS vaccination schedule and is given to babies and then as part of the pre-school boosters. Pregnant women should also receive the vaccination to protect their baby once it is born; this is given between 16 and 32 weeks.”

How do you treat whooping cough? 

“Treating whooping cough depends on a few factors, like your age and how long you’ve had it. Infants under six months are at greater risk of complications and often require hospitalisation and specific care,” says Basford.

“If you’re diagnosed early (within three weeks), antibiotics can help. Medication won’t necessarily make you feel better faster, but it plays a crucial role in stopping the spread. However, if it’s been over three weeks, antibiotics may not help as much as you’re likely to no longer be contagious.

“The focus is on managing symptoms: getting plenty of rest, staying hydrated, and using a cool mist humidifier to ease the cough. Painkillers such as ibuprofen or paracetamol can also help with discomfort.”

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