Summer colds are never any fun, but one Sunday morning in July, I woke up just knowing my kids had whooping cough. The thought had been niggling at me all the day before, and I was on the computer figuring out symptoms before anyone else in the household was up – or at least, up to stay. My toddler had of course, been up what felt like dozens of times that night.
All three of our kids, ages 8, 5 and 23 months, had a cough. None of them had a characteristic “whoop,” although that would come for the littlest one within days of my certainty about our self-diagnosis.
It’s hard for me even to know where to start with this story, which will unfold over the course of at least three separate posts.
When we were in the throes of whooping cough with all three, I was unable to share on social media for weeks because it was too raw, too real (and you all know I’m pretty darn open with my faults and being “real” around here!). I felt embarrassed. Overwhelmed. Pained.
Now, on this last day of October, we’re nearly finished with the whooping cough’s effects. I’ve been reading the notes I took back in July and August when it all began, and already it feels like a distant memory. Could it really have been that bad?
I’m glad I wrote quite a bit while everything was fresh, because it’s a different story from the foxholes than it would have been if I was sharing from my current vantage point.
How Bad is Whooping Cough?
When the neighbor comes over because she can hear him coughing from inside the house and is worried that he’s choking…
When the child wakes up at 10:00, 11:30, 12:00, 1:00, 2:30, 4:00, 5:00, 6:00 and 7:00…
When vomit three times and more per day becomes the new normal…
When you as a parent have to take on a detached feeling most times when the child is coughing, even though it looks like the most awful thing…
…you know it’s not just a cold.
Experiencing whooping cough was bad enough that I felt embarrassed to share not only on social media, but with friends in real life. and other than this, I pretty much share about everything. It took a while for things to feel less raw, and even now, my mouth is dry as I’m putting the story together in print.
We felt like it was our fault the poor little guy had to deal with the awful coughing and not being able to breathe, and it’s so gut-wrenching to watch. It’s equally gut-wrenching to question our decisions.
Our Vaccination Story
I really can’t talk about contracting whooping cough without sharing our vaccine background as a family.
When my oldest, now eight years old, was born, I did what the doctors told me, more or less. I hated the thought of formula and cried when I was told he wasn’t gaining well enough and I had to supplement. But on vaccines, we followed orders. So son number one, Paul, was fully vaccinated until it came time for his kindergarten boosters, and then we entered the wonderful world of “the waiver.” He did not get any of his boosters.
The reason for that is the research I did with baby number two, Paul’s sister Leah. She’s three years younger than him, and our lifestyle had changed a great deal in those three years that I spent as a mostly stay-at-home mom.
When I was expecting Leah, I read The Vaccine Book by Dr. Robert Sears. It’s wonderful in that it breaks down each vaccine as a separate decision and shares research on the risks and benefits of the vaccine.
As a result, Leah started her young life with far fewer shots than Paul. We opted out of about half and delayed some others. By this summer, she had received two of her recommended five pertussis vaccinations.
After Leah’s birth, I started blogging and entered the wild world of far “crunchier” mamas than I encountered in my regular life. By the time John was born three years later, I had a pretty healthy fear of vaccines. (Not fear in the, “I don’t trust God to take care of my family,” sort of way, but the, “I don’t really want to put that directly into my child’s bloodstream, especially when he only weighs 8 pounds,” kind of fear.)
Although we had planned to begin one or two vaccines last year at his 12-month checkup, and he was even taking Vaccishield (a review product) in preparation, he got his very first cold ever right before the appointment, so we backed out, shooting for the 15-month checkup.
At that time, although he was pretty much health in between, he contracted another cold, and instead of shots, he came home with a diagnosis of pneumonia (which we treated naturally, at home – more fighting pneumonia naturally here).
Our much-loved pediatrician left her practice to be a stay-at-home mom, and at the time of the 18-month appointment, I just didn’t know where we wanted to go for care, so I chose to hold off. John had pneumonia again right around his half birthday anyway (Katie rolls her eyes in disgust).
The bottom line was that by mid-summer, a month before his second birthday, and through a series of odd coincidences and conscious choices, our toddler was completely unvaccinated against pertussis (and everything else).
Believe me, even though I already said we had to learn to feel a bit detached during the coughing spells or lose our minds, the guilt of feeling like we did this to our child was intense. Raw. Embarrassing.
Learning that Someone You Love has Whooping Cough
Whooping cough (pertussis) starts out like any other cold. You might notice a bad cough, but at first – when your child is quite contagious – you probably don’t even know what’s going on.
Most people can figure out from whom they got the disease, because it typically takes consistent and persistent contact with someone actually coughing, then sharing the germs with you. You realize something like, “Oh, so-and-so was coughing a ton too – this must be from them!”
With my oldest son, we don’t have a clue who shared pertussis with him. He started coughing on June 22 – a day I know exactly because we were at a family reunion at his grandparents’ house, swimming and socializing. He was perfectly healthy when he woke up, and by the time we were leaving the party, I thought, “Sheesh! This kid just got sick, right now, today! Darn summer colds…”
Almost exactly two weeks later, just before we were considering taking Paul, the oldest, to the doctor’s to see what was up, the younger two (ages 5 and almost 2) started the cough.
None of the kids seemed very under the weather or felt awful all day, but we kept remarking on how, “Goodness! They seem fine forever and then this huge coughing fit! How odd!” or “It really amps up at night and sounds horrible. I can’t wait for this one to be over…”
I’m not sure how exactly I started to wonder about whooping cough. Maybe John was just starting to develop the “whoop” sound, but he wasn’t very obvious yet. I just couldn’t stop thinking about our vaccination choices, how something was awry with this cough, and that it might be whooping cough, even though I couldn’t determine where the “whoop” was.
On that Sunday morning, my research led me to a few basic sites that defined whooping cough, like this one, which began to confirm my suspicion but kept me looking. I read all the details at Mayo Clinic’s site, but it wasn’t until I found this whooping cough information and browsed around that site that I was 100% convinced.
The WhoopingCough.net site is written by a family doctor from the UK who studied whooping cough in his community for 30 years. His goal with the site is help both parents and doctors diagnose whooping cough more accurately, because it is his opinion that whooping cough is severely underdiagnosed, and in my experience, I agree wholeheartedly.
He has a few videos shared by parents, and the second I saw them – heard them – I knew we were dealing with a triple case of whooping cough.
I can barely remember how I shared the news with my husband, but I can recall a visceral feeling, of oppression. Of weight, literally sitting on my shoulders. I had no choice but to heft it up and move on, but it wasn’t an easy load to carry.
That was two weeks in, and one of the facts I learned on my research expedition was that antibiotics are most effective in the first five days and really only help at all to keep the disease from being contagious, which more or less ends after three weeks (but may last up to six weeks). Since we were 14-15 days in, by the time any antibiotics kicked in, John would likely not be contagious anymore anyway.
We decided against pursuing a prescription, my one silver lining: that two of my kids have still never been introduced to pharmaceutical antibiotics.
One other fact I learned was that in Asia, whooping cough is called “The 100 Days Cough.” We were about to find out why.
What Whooping Cough Sounds Like
Only half of all whooping cough cases present with the “whoop” sound, which is one reason pertussis goes severely underdiagnosed.
It’s recommended that if you suspect it at all, or if your child tends to go long spans of time without any coughing, and then has a huge coughing attack (a key symptom of whooping cough), you should try to get a video to show to your doctor. Chances are, the child wouldn’t end up coughing during the doctor’s visit and you’d get an inaccurate diagnosis.
This is what whooping cough sounds like without the whoop (the video of my 5-year-old daughter was taken about 3 weeks after symptoms started):
If you can’t see the video, click HERE to view it on YouTube.
And here’s our little guy, almost two years old, at the same time, three weeks after symptoms began:
If you can’t see the video, click HERE to view it on YouTube.
He clearly has the whoop, which started about 15-16 days in.
The sound of the deep, chesty coughs reverberates through the walls at night. The rhythm isn’t hack, hack hack; it’s “Ah-tum, ah-tum, ah-tum,” almost two syllables, more like a sneeze cadence than a cough.
The classic “whoop” is a fairly easy-to-recognize sign, but neither of our older kids exhibited it. They both did have coughing fits that made it hard for them to breathe, like too much “out” without enough “in” for their air, and also exhibited the classic whooping cough sign of going long periods with no coughing at all.
What Whooping Cough is Really Like
Back in the midst of pertussis’s grip on our household, I wrote:
“John is like a time bomb, you never know when he’ll cough and vomit…
He wakes up about every hour (or more) for much of the night, then somehow sleeps peacefully, generally, from 6-9 in the morning.
We can’t drive anywhere without being ready for vomit, and “bucket management” has become part of our vocabulary, i.e. making sure there’s always either a bucket or hard flooring nearby at all times.
It was during this time when I had the unfortunate experience of blueberry smoothie making a return appearance after John had been enjoying our new review product, a Squooshi reusable food pouch (they’re back as sponsors again this month!), and wandered onto the carpet before I realized it.
I was pretty adept at knowing when the upchuck was coming – did I mention yet that he vomited or at least spit up about a dozen times a day? I caught some but not all of the green/blueberry smoothie. This natural carpet spot cleaner post was one of the first times I alluded to the whole saga, and that wasn’t even written until September.
And how long does it really last?
Somewhere around 7 weeks (or 49 days) I wrote down that whether or not the cough lasts a full 100 days, 50 days might as well be 100. It feels long.
On October 13th, I was still trying to tape John’s cough at night through the monitor to share in these posts, because it still had the “whoop” sound. I checked the calendar, and it turns out that’s exactly a frightening 100 days from July 5th, the first day symptoms appeared.
Symptoms of Whooping Cough
With three cases in the house, we saw plenty of whooping cough symptoms. If you really want to understand the disease, I can’t say enough about this doctor’s site, which has everything the rest of the Internet has on whooping cough plus a ton more information and experience.
For those who just want an overview, here’s a list of possible symptoms:
- long span of time between coughs, often 2-4 hours without a problem (but not exactly “fine all day, coughs at night,” which is more related to croup)
- a choking cough that lasts 1-2 minutes (although not always, in our experience, and not with every child)
- turning red or blue in the face during a coughing spasm
- coughing so hard you vomit
- Our 8-year-old wet the bed nearly every night for two weeks, perhaps because he was coughing so hard, perhaps because of some other related side effect (being so tired from the coughing waking him up?)
Not everyone will demonstrate all the symptoms, but whooping cough is almost always characterized by that long break between coughing spasms.
By the way, did I mention I’m not a doctor, not a nurse, not anyone qualified to give medical advice of any kind? I’m just a mom who had three sick kids, read some stuff on the Internet, and felt compelled to share. Please, don’t take any of my advice with any more weight than you’d accept advice from a random neighbor.
Beyond the Symptoms: Life with Whooping Cough
Reading a list of the symptoms, and even watching the video of my kids, neither of whom had a truly serious case of whooping cough, cannot do justice to the fact that it’s literally a new lifestyle, with as many emotional pressures and habit changes as the transition to say, a grain-free lifestyle doing it all at once.
During our experience, when I had an extra brain cell available to think, I was often thinking about how I would eventually have to share the whole story with all of you, because I think it’s important to get beyond the text in a book describing a disease and into the life of a real family who experienced it.
Many of you are in positions where you’re deciding on vaccinations for your children. I’ll talk much more about our decision process and how it may or may not change from here on out, but here are some of the thoughts that Katie-in-the-midst-of-the-whooping-cough-crisis often wanted you to hear:
If you don’t vaccinate against whooping cough, you need to know what you’re risking:
- You have to be ready to deal with coughing-to-vomiting a dozen times a day. Not for one or two days, but for 2-4 weeks, potentially.
- Are you ready for 100 days of shortened or missed naps?
- You have to be willing to have your child cough so loudly and sound so scary that everyone in the room looks at you.
- Imagine yourself saying to someone you’re acquainted with: “My child has whooping cough.” Evaluate how that would make you feel.
- You have to be ready to keep your child out of school or daycare for 21 days – and siblings too? That includes church, library time, and any other fun family functions you might have planned in a given month, summer or winter.
- You have to be willing to stay away from all the babies in your life for a long time, 3-4 weeks at least, and probably all elderly people too.
- Consider an illness that lasts 7 weeks to three months. Can you sustain care that long for your child?
- You have to be prepared to deal with rude people who will judge you for not getting your baby/child vaccinated.
- You can’t love your sleep. You’ll likely wake up somewhere between once an hour and three times a night, or sometimes once every 5-20 minutes. If that doesn’t make any sense to you, please forgive me – you see, my toddler has whooping cough, and I’m kind of low on sleep.
Then again, you may have to go through the same list even if you do vaccinate…which is precisely the problem.
The range of emotions as a parent can’t be underestimated – from being so pained from watching your child in great pain, to guilt and second-guessing about the vaccine decision, to becoming detached during every coughing spasm, more like a doctor or nurse than a mother or father, to the great fear of infecting other babies.
I cannot tell you what it’s like to imagine your child as a walking death trap to a newborn child, and to attempt to walk backward through the two weeks when you didn’t know that it was whooping cough, trying to figure out if we might have infected anyone else.
I’ll pick up the story in the next post with the social aspects of your child having a contagious disease for which there exists a vaccine…
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