Fort Worth, Texas,
14:57 PM

At 7 Weeks Old He Contracted Whooping Cough. What You Can Do To Prevent The Spread of This Potentially Deadly Disease

Baby With Whooping Cough

By Diane Arnaout, M.D.

When I first met little Pierce a few days after he came home from the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, I noted two things: Pierce was a tough little guy, a real fighter, and his parents were two of the most caring, loving and excited first-time parents I had ever met.

So you can imagine my horror to learn that my new sweet little buddy had contracted the potentially deadly disease called whooping cough (pertussis) before he was even 7 weeks old.

Pierce was born 5 weeks early, was very small, and had respiratory distress at birth. After spending 18 days in the NICU, our little fighter was healthy enough to go home.

His parents worked really hard at getting enough calories in him daily, and I saw him in my office a lot to assure he was growing well and thriving. And he was.

A few days before Christmas, Pierce’s mom, Whitney, emailed me on our portal system to let me know he had some congestion, but seemed to be OK otherwise. Cool. No biggie! Baby’s first cold. Keep him drinking, watch for fevers, watch his breathing closely. Lots of kids have colds right now. Keep me updated.

A couple days later, he had a tiny temperature elevation to 99-100. Since he was born so early, and so small, I asked them to come in so I could check him. He looked great! So I sent them home.

Pierce’s cough was getting worse. Really junky. I checked on him again a few days later in my office. He seemed fine. We talked about what to watch for:

  • A dusky color to gums and tongue.
  • Chest muscles working hard to breathe.
  • Not wanting to drink.
  • Fever coming back.

Let me know if these things happen. I sent them home and asked them to email me updates over the next few days.

I didn’t like what I read in those updates in the next 24 hours.

“He’s starting to turn blue with this cough, Dr. Diane.”

“His cough is coming in huge fits, and it’s making him throw up.”

Pierce’s mom Whitney told me, “The moment we became super worried was when we started realizing how hard he was working to breathe. He was turning blue and dusky. He was choking. He was coughing until he would just gasp for air.”

They went to a Cook Children’s Urgent Care center that weekend, because things were getting worse. A nasal swab was done there for whooping cough, since his fits were getting so bad. The results would take a few days to come back.

But surely it wasn’t whooping cough, his parents (and I) thought! His parents had gotten their pertussis (Tdap) boosters when his mom was pregnant. And they’d asked all grandparents, aunts, uncles, and a cousin to all get their shots too. They wanted to protect their precious new baby from a known danger.

The day the whooping cough test came back positive on a Sunday, Pierce turned really blue with a coughing fit. The family went to the Cook Children’s ER immediately. I called the hospital doctor to let them know he was coming, and that I was worried about him. I sent in antibiotics for his family to take, with the hopes they wouldn’t catch it too. Pierce took antibiotics too, which made his pertussis not “spreadable,” but unfortunately this does not cure or even improve the illness once you’ve started coughing.

Whooping cough is a bacteria that we have a vaccine for. However, babies can’t get their first vaccine until they are about 2 months old. Infants are usually the hit the hardest by pertussis. They often have to be on ICU support, and 1% of infants who contract it will die.

Sweet Pierce was scheduled to get his whooping cough vaccine (Dtap) with me in my office the day after he was admitted to the hospital.

Pertussis is spread by microscopic droplets in the air. Someone coughing or sneezing near you can pass it to you. Or, just being in the same part of a room, breathing the same air, can pass the disease on to someone. It is HIGHLY contagious.

It starts with cold symptoms for 1-2 weeks. Then, the horrible coughing fits start. Adults and older kids can break ribs and pop lungs because they cough so hard. And it’s known as the “100 days cough” because it can last a long time.

Listen to Pierce’s cough in the video. You hear how he struggles to take in some breath between coughing fits? The “whoop” sound? This is how the disease got its name.

Our little hero spent a full week at Cook Children’s. He needed oxygen, fluids and supportive care. They assured he was able to drink and was breathing comfortably. They helped support him through the coughing fits and assured his oxygen levels never went too low.

“Cook Children’s was just as amazing as I knew it would be. I had heard from friends and family that the care they got there was truly the best, and we can agree with them now based on our experience,” Whitney said. “Everyone was so sweet and thoughtful. Some nurses and techs went above and beyond when they knew we were exhausted, rocking our baby so we could get some sleep. They didn’t just look after Pierce’s well-being, they looked after ours, too!”

We’re not sure how Pierce contracted whooping cough. It is such a contagious disease. It could have been at the grocery store as he napped. It could have been a well-meaning family member who hadn’t been vaccinated in a while. It could have been a bystander at the post office. Just waiting in line at a doctor’s office or sitting next to a table full of people at a restaurant can spread the disease.

Dr. Susie Whitworth, the director of the Infectious Disease clinic at Cook Children’s, told me “I wish the public understood how very safe the vaccine is, how very commonly we still see children with pertussis, and how infants still die of this vaccine-preventable disease. “

The most important thing YOU can do to protect babies like Pierce is to vaccinate yourself and those you love. The vaccine is 89% effective in children if they get all the boosters, but the effectiveness slowly wanes over time. This is why we give boosters to kids at age 4 and 11,  and why we recommend getting the vaccine at least every 10 years as an adult. So the MORE of us that get the vaccine, the LESS chance this disease can penetrate a community. And, if you’re vaccinated and do catch pertussis, several studies have shown the length and severity of illness is much less severe.

Pierce is now at home, and is feeling great. He survived a disease that so many infants do not. He came to my office a week after going home from the hospital and got his first set of vaccines. His parents told me, “We want to tell his story. We want people to understand what he’s been through. If it’s read by even one person who is on the fence about vaccines, and we change their mind, it will be so worth it.”

For More On This Topic:

Get to know Diane Arnaout, M.D., a Cook Children's pediatrician at Forest Park

"I didn’t realize how important the job of the pediatrician was until I had kids of my own. My education, experience in medicine, and cocky attitude made me feel like I knew it all before my first one came around. He proceeded to make me very aware of how little I actually knew.

Thankfully he survived, as did the next one, and they’ve helped me to grow and to help YOU, the parent, in so many ways. Sure I’m here to make sure your kids are healthy and happy at all ages. But I’m also here to make sure you’re educated, to make sure your family is thriving, and to make you feel confident in caring for your kids. From diaper rashes to sleep problems to school difficulties - I’m here to help.

I write a lot about common problems and ailments online – you can find me busy on Facebook and Instagram, and I write articles for the Cook Children’s Checkup Newsroom blog. A lot of stuff you’ll hear me say in the office will be typed out on there, too. And we’re in a day and age where the internet helps make connections – you can connect with me on there, or e-mail me anytime.

It takes a village to raise a child – and I’m so grateful to be a part of yours. And as Master Yoda teaches us – “Always pass on what you have learned.” I fully plan to!"

To schedule an appointment with Dr. Arnaout, click here.

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Terri Andrews
Thank you for telling this story. It is so important for families to hear the cough and know just how sick an infant can get with Whooping Cough. Thank you Dr Arnaout, Cook Children's and little Pierce's parents for telling the story. Terri Andrews, President Immunization Collaboration of Tarrant County and Grandma to 9.