What is the 100-day cough? Symptoms to spot as nasty infection sweeps the UK

8 December 2023, 16:49

Cases of whooping cough are soaring across the country.
Cases of whooping cough are soaring across the country. Picture: Alamy

This highly contagious bacterial infection is on the rise – and pregnant women, babies and young children are particularly at risk.

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Britain is being hit with a bout of whooping cough as a 250% spike of the nasty infection has been recorded in the UK.

Cases are continuing to rise in England and Wales, with more than 700 people contracting the highly contagious '100-day cough' in recent months – triple the number compared to the same period last year, according to the UK Health Security Agency.

Medical experts have weighed in on the outbreak, urging people to be aware of the symptoms, particularly pregnant women and parents of babies and young children.

So what exactly is whooping cough? What are the symptoms? And how is it treated? Here we break down the health details.

What is the 100-day cough?

The 100-day cough, also known as whooping cough, is a bacterial infection of the lungs and breathing tubes.

Referred to medically as pertussis, the highly contagious respiratory disease can cause serious problems in babies, young children and pregnant women.

It is known mostly for its violet coughing fits which are often uncontrollable and make it tricky to breathe.

London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine Professor Beate Kampmann told the Sun: "The rise in cases might be because of missed vaccination appointments, possibly during the pandemic.

"Severe disease is almost entirely preventable if the mother is vaccinated in pregnancy and her protective antibodies reach the baby through the placenta and protect until the baby gets its own vaccines.

"It is therefore important that everyone looks at their vaccination records to check if they might have missed this vaccine, which is given with the routine childhood immunisations and in pregnancy."

Whooping cough is a bacterial infection of the lungs.
Whooping cough is a bacterial infection of the lungs. Picture: Alamy

What are the symptoms of whooping cough?

The NHS states the "first signs of whooping cough are similar to a cold, such as a runny nose and sore throat".

The health institution says that after about a week you can expect:

  • coughing bouts that last for a few minutes and are worse at night
  • a "whoop" sound – a gasp for breath between coughs (young babies and some adults may not "whoop")
  • difficulty breathing after a coughing bout and may turn blue or grey (young infants)
  • to bring up a thick mucus, which can make you vomit
  • to become very red in the face (more common in adults)

The cough itself can last for several weeks but often lingers for months, which is why it is referred to as the 100-day cough.

The uncontrollable cough can last for months.
The uncontrollable cough can last for months. Picture: Alamy

How is whooping cough treated?

Hospital treatment is usually necessary if the infection is severe or the patient is a baby under six months old.

If whooping cough is diagnosed within three weeks of someone becoming infected, they will be given antibiotics.

The NHS states this treatment should help the sufferer fight the infection, plus prevent it spreading to other people.

Although symptoms can stretch across months, those who have been infected for over three weeks are no longer contagious and do not need antibiotics.

The NHS suggests phoning 111 if:

  • your baby is under 6 months old and has symptoms of whooping cough
  • you or your child have a very bad cough that is getting worse
  • you've been in contact with someone with whooping cough and you're pregnant
  • you or your child has been in contact with someone with whooping cough and have a weakened immune system

The infection can be especially dangerous in infants under six months old and can increase problems such as:

  • dehydration
  • breathing difficulties
  • pneumonia
  • seizures (fits)

It is less severe in older kids and adults but can still cause:

  • sore ribs
  • hernia
  • middle ear infections
  • pee leaking out when you cough (urinary incontinence)
Immunisations are available to prevent whooping cough.
Immunisations are available to prevent whooping cough. Picture: Alamy

When to call 999

The NHS states you should call 999 if:

  • your or your child's lips, tongue, face or skin suddenly turn blue or grey (on black or brown skin this may be easier to see on the palms of the hands or the soles of the feet)
  • you or your child are finding it hard to breathe properly (shallow breathing)
  • you or your child have chest pain that's worse when breathing or coughing – this could be a sign of pneumonia
  • your child is having seizures (fits)

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