This is part two of a three-part story about our family’s experience with whooping cough. The first part includes a video of what whooping cough sounds like. The third discusses the difficult vaccination decision and the problem of statistics.
When I told my husband that I was writing next about the social aspects of having whooping cough, he said, “Yeah, you’re right, like it was pretty uncomfortable to tell my friend who’s a doctor about our kids having whooping cough.”
Not exactly what I meant.
I was talking about the community part of it, the fact that, as one commenter in this post about vaccines causing peanut allergies put it, “Parents who don’t vaccinate their kids are baby killing nut jobs.”
Um, thank you for your tact there, ma’am, and for discounting the fact that people who are fully vaccinated also contract whooping cough quite readily.
She’s right about one thing though. Kids with whooping cough should not be in contact with little ones under 6 months old, period. Whooping cough is far too likely to be fatal at that age.
There were points when we did feel like we were walking baby-killers.
On Exposing Others
Technically, we didn’t know we had whooping cough until we were already two weeks into it with our youngest two, so we had already unknowingly exposed a lot of people in our day-to-day lives during the time my oldest had it for two weeks before the little ones plus the two weeks the littles were coughing.
After we figured out that we were actually experiencing whooping cough symptoms, we kept the toddler home from church, didn’t go to library, and I let my mother’s helper’s mom know about it as well. Her daughter had already been exposed to it the week before (along with everyone at church and library, technically), but since they had a 3-year-old in their family, she wanted to play it safe and take a week off.
After the third week passed (whooping cough is not supposed to be contagious after 21 days), we stopped doing anything differently because we assumed John, our toddler, wasn’t contagious. When we were four weeks into whooping cough with the little ones, we traveled north to visit my parents. We did the math, knew we were more than 21 days past the onset of the illness, and my parents were okay with us coming. I never gave it another thought.
My big kids were playing with the neighbors, and John was sleeping. I started to say to the mom, “I need to go see if John is waking up from his nap; I know I just put him down, but sometimes he coughs…” I didn’t actually give any explanation, because I started thinking about her 1-year-old daughter, and the fact that when I thought the kids were playing outside at her house the day before, they had ended up inside the house. If Leah, my middle child who barely seemed sick anymore, happened to still be contagious, we had already exposed their family.
I should have given them the choice. I should have been up front about the whooping cough, explained that we were fairly certain no one was contagious anymore, perhaps assured her that John didn’t need to come over himself, and allowed them to make their own decisions on their level of risk.
Once I had already exposed their family, though, I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t tell her about the whooping cough, just excused myself to check on a sleeping toddler. She understood; she’s a mom too. She’s a mom who should have been told about this disease, and I wasn’t thinking about it in that light. I wasn’t thinking that we could still be sharing it with others, but there’s always a chance. I messed up, and I didn’t know how to unring the bell.
The Vaccinated Neighbors
One family with whom my son spends a lot of time actually did contract whooping cough from him. The boy, my oldest son’s good friend, was mentioning something about a cough at their house when John (the youngest) was having a coughing spell. I thought, “Uh oh, I wonder if they’re vaccinated.”
I talked with the mom on the phone, and once I told her that a major symptom that a nagging cough is actually whooping cough is that the child doesn’t cough for a very long time, then has a nasty coughing fit, she said, “Yes, that does sound like what’s going on, and the coughing is pretty bad – twice he’s actually coughed so hard he threw up.”
My heart sank.
“Oh dear…yeah, he definitely has whooping cough,” I had to tell her. “I’m so sorry we shared…”
She was very gracious and said that kids will get sick, that’s how kids are. Her sons were both fully vaccinated for their ages, and in fact my son’s buddy would have likely just recently had his kindergarten booster within the last 12-18 months. Yet he still got a case of whooping cough bad enough to make him vomit twice, which is worse than my middle daughter who had only two of her five required shots. From what I understand, the 2-year-old brother did not get the cough.
The Babies at Church
I’m not actually sure where this story fits in the timeline, but it happened sometime after the three weeks were up but before John was feeling much better.
We went to church and sat in the back so I could run to the bathroom if he had “an episode,” but we had a one-year-old and two newborn twins behind us and little ones who couldn’t have been completely vaccinated all around.
I was on pins and needles the whole Mass, so glad when John spent half of it nursing under the sling. I kept rereading in my head the explanation that it takes direct contact with mucus from the child coughing to actually contract the disease, telling myself that John couldn’t share whooping cough with these little angels as long as he was with me, on my lap. In spite of that, I was having Mommy-daymares about reading a newspaper headline about the death of two local newborn twins from pertussis. I did a lot of praying that morning, to be sure,and I still feel awful about it.
Once he was up, I walked away with him, but it really brought into sharp perspective the idea of the global society, the Body of Christ, the ramifications of each decision we make reaching far beyond our own family. This experience throws into the unknown all the vaccination decisions we have made (more in a future post on how we’re dealing with that).
The Elderly Great-Grandparents
My grandparents are 87 years old, in very good health for their age, still living on their own, and smart as two tacks.
We were actually visiting their house when our two little ones showed symptoms of big brother’s cough for the first time, right when all three were likely highly contagious but a good two weeks before we figured out what was going on. (We thought our oldest just had a weird cough – remember that whooping cough gives major reprieves, four and five hours without a single cough. Our active 8-year-old boy was living life as usual, and as far as visiting the grandparents, we figured that his “cold” was no longer contagious since it was two weeks in.)
Once the whooping cough situation was clear, I was terrified for my grandparents.
I called my mom right away after we figured out the symptoms of whooping cough, and I asked her if she knew if my grandparents had colds. I figured if they had been exposed, and if they were going to contract the disease, they would be showing cold symptoms by then or within a few days. My mom said she’d talk to them, and I assumed she’d tell them what was going on.
When it was time to get together as an extended family again at their house, this time 4-5 weeks after the onset of symptoms in the younger two, I didn’t give it a second thought, since (a) we’d been living our “new normal” for so long, I wasn’t being careful anymore, and because (b) we thought they weren’t contagious at all after 21 days, and (c) I knew they’d already been exposed and thought they knew the story.
Turns out my mom had only checked to make sure they were healthy but didn’t tell them about the whooping cough, because she didn’t want to worry them. I had assumed, and I was wrong.
Before we went to my grandparents’ to stay a few nights, we saw them at a family picnic for a few hours. Imagine my middle-aged aunt’s surprise when she was giving me a break by taking John for a walk and he had a whooping cough attack. It sounds so scary, she thought he was having an asthma attack or choking. When my older son casually said, “Oh no, he has whooping cough,” it didn’t really make her feel any better, thinking of her 87-year-old parents sitting a few yards away.
She got on her smart phone immediately and started looking things up. Without knowing how long he’d had it, they understandably became very worried and distressed.
I’m not even sure how to describe the situation but to say that it was a mess.
Since I had wrongfully assumed that people knew what was going on, of course it felt like our family had been covert or sneaky and was unfairly exposing other people to a pretty nasty contagious disease, and my aunt and uncle were planning to visit another relative of theirs with an infant baby the following week. They were very concerned and agitated, with good reason.
After profuse apologies on the phone (I didn’t know about all this until that evening after the kids went to bed), more research on both sides (I was horrified to read that some kids are contagious for up to 6 weeks – on a site I had read thoroughly previously but apparently neglected to remember that part), and lots of conversation with my mom about the awful gamble both sides are taking (vaccinating and not vaccinating), I left the ball in their court about whether or not they were comfortable with us visiting that week or not, and they also needed to call my cousins, who have children ages 8 and 3, and let them make the same informed decision.
Writing all this, it sounds like I was being irresponsible with whooping cough. How rude and selfish to presume that it would be okay to go to someone’s house and stay a few nights with other children around and a clear case of whooping cough!
I shake my head at myself in retrospect, but truly, I just wasn’t thinking that way. Once the 21 days had passed, we were moving on with our lives as though nothing was wrong, even though John was still vomiting multiple times a day for the next week solid. It was at about four weeks that he finally started getting much better, to the point where most coughs lasted only 5-10 seconds and did not include vomiting (at least during the day).
When you’re in the middle of a situation, something you don’t think from an outsider’s perspective. We were just taking it one day at a time, making decisions based on what we knew. We weren’t doing any more research, because everything we had discovered in our initial foray stated that no treatments really help whooping cough, so we felt we had nothing more helpful to learn.
At the point of 4+ weeks when we were doing this traveling, I must tell you, it was clear to us that he was much, much better, but the coughs still sounded so terrible that we caught everyone’s attention when they happened in public. I felt like we should have put signs on him like the scarlet letter A: “I have whooping cough, but don’t worry, I shouldn’t be contagious. I just sound like I’m dying.”
At the same time, I didn’t want people to know.
There was a level of embarrassment there, since whooping cough is a preventable disease.* I felt as though we’d be judged for making a grievous error and being irresponsible with our child’s health, much like I might look down my nose at someone smoking a cigarette in a vehicle full of children. We made an informed decision on vaccines, knowing we were taking a risk, and even though many, many fully vaccinated children also contract whooping cough, the general public doesn’t usually view it that way.
Edit: A few in the comments wondered what I meant by “preventable disease” when I also clearly state that vaccinated kids get whooping cough. It’s really more of a “perceived preventable disease.” The general population believes it is preventable, so as far as how people are going to react to our family having it, the stigma is there even though the facts don’t support it.
I hadn’t ever mentioned it on social media yet, either, even though the rest of my life, from what we eat for dinner to the laundry baskets lining my hallways to the antibiotics we take and do not take, is usually displayed via blog posts and Facebook with all its authentic and humiliating details. I couldn’t talk about this yet. It was too raw, too uncomfortable, too sensitive…and yes, too embarrassing to begin to broach the subject. So I didn’t. I couldn’t, even though it dominated our lives for weeks on end.
Now that I’m working through the comments on yesterday’s post and the Facebook thread, I wish I had said something. A handful of readers have mentioned the Vitamin C treatment for whooping cough, which I haven’t even had time to read about yet. I mentioned it to my husband, who said wisely, “And then we would have had to research that, likely finding conflicting information on both sides, and making another tough decision about what to do. It’s not like mega doses of a vitamin were found in foods traditionally. You can’t eat that many oranges…”
We didn’t do much other than rest, liquids, a vaporizer with essential oils, and attempts at the steam treatment like we did to naturally treat pneumonia. We also tried to help our 5-year-old daughter breathe all her air out during a coughing spasm, like this description. It really did relieve some of the intensity of the coughing. Even the almost-2-year-old started to try exhaling during the coughs with some success.
In Closing: The Risks of Whooping Cough Being Contagious
The CDC says in this PDF that whooping cough is contagious when he has cold symptoms and for 2 weeks after the coughing starts. The State of New York health department and my own local health department both state 3 weeks.
We had done the math. We were trying not to spread the disease, once we knew about it. We certainly were not trying to risk others’ health or lives over visiting in a social situation. We also became comfortable with the “new normal” and were probably a bit less vigilant than we should have been once the 3-4 weeks passed.
Whooping cough is most risky for infants under 6 months and the elderly, those who most often have secondary complications from the cough which can be very serious, even leading to death (1 in 100 infants die, a statistic I plan to unpack a bit in a future post).
We as a country vaccinate our kids mostly to protect others (babies) from possible death, not to protect the child receiving the vaccine, although most agree that the vaccines reduce the symptoms and likelihood of complications.
I will always wonder if my kids had differing severity based on their ages and general immune system strength or if it was a direct correlation between the numbers of pertussis vaccinations they received. My oldest, with 4 shots, had the least severe reactions, my middle with 2 shots, worse than her older brother but much milder than her younger, unvaccinated brother. We’ll never know for sure if there’s some sort of partial immunity that we participated in, or if it’s all the luck of the draw. Our neighbor with 5 vaccines seemed to have a bit worse time of it than my daughter, so there’s no perfect system.
Now that my kids have had pertussis, they are much more immune than even fully vaccinated kids (but still not 100%, which is aggravating). We got through it, and it wasn’t great, but I’m sure it won’t be the hardest thing we’ll ever encounter as a family.
This will sound crazy, but I’m actually thankful that God granted us this cross. I feel like other people need to understand what they’re risking when they don’t vaccinate against pertussis, and I have the ability and the platform from which to share.
I am not saying that everyone should vaccinate their children, however. I’m just the information sharer, and each parent needs to make their own informed decision about what they put in their children’s bodies. It is far from easy, and in fact one of the few parts about parenting that we rank as more difficult than disciplining our strong-willed children.
More in the next post on our thoughts now on vaccines, plus my conversation with the health department…
UPDATE: Here’s that post on the accuracy of vaccination and disease statistics.