Pertussis, or whooping cough, has made a dramatic resurgence in the past several years. Large outbreaks of whooping cough symptoms have occurred in multiple states. Infant deaths have drawn the attention of not only healthcare providers, but also the media. (1)
Although antibiotics are the standard conventional treatment for whooping cough, there are natural remedies for coughs and bacterial infections that will help you to fight this serious condition and reduce the duration of symptoms.
What Is Whooping Cough?
Whooping cough is a very contagious respiratory disease. It’s is caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis. It is characterized as a severe hacking cough that’s followed by a whooping, high-pitched sound that occurs when a person is struggling to take a breath. Whooping cough passes from person to person by close contact with bacteria-filled droplets sprayed into the air. Most deaths due to whooping cough occur among babies younger than 3 months old.
Despite effective antibiotic treatments and universal vaccination strategies started long ago, whooping cough is still a dangerous disease. It’s dangerous even in developed countries. Around 16 million cases of whooping cough occur worldwide each year, mostly in low-income countries. (2)
In 2015, there were 20,762 cases of whooping cough in the United States (down from over 32,000 cases in 2014 and over 48,000 cases in 2012), and 6 deaths. (3) Death from whooping cough in children and adults is due to the effects of the sudden and violent coughing. Recent outbreaks of whooping cough highlight the danger of pertussis in adults and the risk of spreading it to at-risk infants who are most susceptible to complications, including death. (4)
People with whooping cough symptoms are contagious after 5 days of antimicrobial treatment (like an antibiotic) or 21 days after the onset of cough when you don’t take medication. One of the greatest fears of developing whooping cough is passing the infection to a young child or infant, which can have deadly consequences.
Common Whooping Cough Symptoms
Symptoms of whooping cough usually develop within 5 to 10 days after exposure. Sometimes it can take as long as three weeks. Patients with whooping cough may experience severe coughing bouts. These are usually accompanied by whooping, the sound made when taking a deep breath in after coughing, and vomiting, which can lead to dehydration, difficulty breathing and being admitted to the hospital. (5)
According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, there are three stages of whooping cough symptoms:
- Catarrhal — After the incubation period of 5 to 10 days, on average, whooping cough symptoms begin to develop. Catarrhal symptoms include inflammation of the mucous membranes in one of the airways. This stage usually lasts for 7 to 10 days. Characteristics include: inflammation of mucous membranes, low-grade fever and mild, occasional cough that gradually becomes more severe.
- Paroxysmal — The cough usually starts like other respiratory tract infections, but then becomes paroxysmal, meaning intense and sudden. Paroxysms of cough may occur more at night. They usually increase in frequency and severity as the illness progresses, typically persisting for 2 to 6 weeks, but can be for up to 10 weeks. The coughs become so rapid because it’s difficult to expel the thick mucus from the lungs. These coughs usually end with a high-pitched “whoop” at the end and may also lead to vomiting and exhaustion. On average, coughing attacks happen 15 times per 24 hours, increasing in frequency during the first 1 to 2 weeks, remaining the same frequency for 2 to 3 weeks and then gradually decreasing.
- Convalescent — The convalescent stage usually lasts for 7 to 10 days. It’s characterized by gradual recovery, less persistent coughing attacks that disappear in 2 to 3 weeks. (6)
Many children under 6 months of age do not develop paroxysmal cough or the characteristic “whoop.” Infants often have a long and complicated course of recurrent episodes involving apnea (shallow breath or pauses in breathing), cyanosis (turning blue due to a lack of oxygen) and bradycardia (slow heart rate). (7)
Death from whooping cough occurs most in small children. Almost 90 percent of reported deaths occur in unvaccinated infants less than 1 year old. Researchers found that high levels of leukocytosis, an increase in the number of white cells in the blood, may predict a fatal outcome in children admitted to the hospital. (8)
Causes and Risk Factors
A bacterium called Bordetella pertussis causes whooping cough. When an infected person coughs or sneezes, the bacteria-filled droplets spray into the air. Then they are breathed into the lungs of anyone nearby. (9)
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, unvaccinated or incompletely vaccinated infants younger than 12 months of age have the highest risk for severe and life-threatening complications and death. The illness is generally less severe in adolescents and adults. The typical “whoop” is less common among these age groups. (10) However, there is an increase in the frequency of whooping cough because of waning immunity among vaccinated individuals who become susceptible during adolescence and adulthood and maintain the circulation of B. pertussis bacteria. Getting the primary infection or the primary immunization does not mean permanent immunity.
Vaccines are available for the purpose of preventing whooping cough. Two kinds of vaccines are used today. Both are combined with vaccines for other diseases. DTaP and Tdap vaccines include diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis. DTap is given to children younger than 7 years old. Tdap is a booster immunization given to older children and adults for continued protection. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends whooping cough vaccinations for all babies, children, teens and pregnant women. (11)
Antibiotics are also used to lessen whooping cough symptoms and the amount of time that a person is contagious. Researchers have found that antibiotics did help to eradicate B. pertussis from the airway. But it only limited the severity of the disease when it was started in the first stage of whooping cough, the catarrhal phase. (12)
The standard treatment of pertussis has been a full dose of erythromycin for 14 days. However, sensitivity and side effects to this medicine may reduce compliance. One study showed that erythromycin treatment causes gastrointestinal side effects, such as nausea, vomiting or diarrhea, in 41 percent of patients. (13) According to the CDC, patients who can’t tolerate erythromycin, or infants too young to be given the drug, should be treated with azithromycin or clarithromycin.
A review published in the Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews assessed the risks and benefits of antibiotic treatment against whooping cough in children and adults. Thirteen trials with 2,197 participants met the inclusion criteria. Researchers found that there was no differences in clinical outcomes or relapse between short and long-term antibiotics. They also found that antibiotics were not as effective when treating secondary cases of whooping cough. This may be because they are more effective if initiated within 21 days of forceful coughing. Side effects were also reported with antibiotics. They varied from one antibiotic to another. (14)
Another review that involved six studies and 196 participants found that antihistamines, pertussis immunoglobulin (antibodies to increase the body’s resistance to whooping cough) and salbutamol (a medication used to open the airways) did not reduce the number of coughing bouts in patients with whooping cough symptoms. Neither pertussis immunoglobulin nor steroids decreased the length of time participants spend in the hospital. Patients who took immunoglobulin pertussis experienced side effects such as loose stools, pain and swelling of the skin around where the injection was given. (15)
12 Natural Treatments for Whooping Cough
Ayurvedic medicine praises ginger’s ability to boost the immune system by warming the body so it can break down the accumulation of toxins in the organs. Ginger also has antibacterial properties. It cleans the lymphatic system, preventing the accumulation of toxins that make us susceptible to infections, especially in the respiratory system. (16)
2. Raw Honey
There are many health benefits of raw honey, including its ability to treat coughs just as effectively as over-the-counter commercial cough syrups. Increasing evidence shows that a single dose of honey can reduce mucus secretion and coughs. (17) To help relieve whooping cough symptoms, anyone over the age of one should take 1 to 2 teaspoons of raw honey at bedtime. Do not use raw honey to treat infants.
It can be argued that turmeric is the most powerful herb on the planet at fighting and potentially reversing disease. Turmeric can be used to reduce inflammation and ease pain. Unlike so many over-the-counter pain medications, turmeric has relatively no known side effects unless taken in extremely excessive amounts. An important part of turmeric, curcumin, is known for its antibacterial potential. Studies found that curcumin has shown antimicrobial potential against a wide range of microorganisms. (18)
4. Bone Broth
Consuming soups or smoothies containing bone broth can help to reduce inflammation in the respiratory system, boost the immune system and get the nutrients that you need to fight whooping cough. Bone broth’s gut-supportive benefits have a holistic effect on the entire body and help to support healthy immune system function. Bone broth is one of the most beneficial foods to consume when you are ill and need nutrients to restore your health.
According to research published in FEMS Immunology and Medical Microbiology, immaturity of gut-associated immunity may contribute to pediatric mortality associated with infections. Although the research focuses on infections of the intestines, evidence shows that probiotics can help defend against bacterial infections and reduce inflammatory responses. (19)
A 2010 study also found that probiotics may enhance specific antibody responses in infants who are receiving certain vaccines. (20)
6. Licorice Root
Licorice root is an herb that can reduce coughing and enhance immune system function. It possesses antimicrobial activities and its soothing, anti-inflammatory properties can naturally relieve a sore throat. Licorice root is not safe for people with high blood pressure. It’s generally only recommended for short term use. (21)
Use N-acetylcysteine for chronic cough to help thin out phlegm, making it easier to cough up. It comes from the amino acid L-cysteine. It’s commonly used for respiratory conditions like bronchitis, hay fever, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer. It can also be used to increase immunity and detoxify the body. (22)
8. Oregano Oil
Oregano oil is a natural antibacterial agent that supports respiratory health. It works as the ultimate natural antibiotic. According to research published in The Open Microbiology Journal, antibiotic resistance can lead to treatment failure and increased costs as well as the rate of fatalities. Plus, it creates even broader infection control problems, spreading resistant bacteria from hospitals to communities. However, plant extracts, such as oregano oil, consisting of complex mixtures of major compounds can be extremely beneficial. There are also many advantages of using these natural products as antimicrobial compounds. These include fewer adverse effects, better patient tolerance, low cost, renewability and better biodegradability. (23) Older children and adults can take oregano oil internally for a maximum of two weeks. Dilute 1 to 2 drops with water or coconut oil and take it once daily. Do not use on small children and infants.
9. Peppermint Oil
Peppermint oil contains menthol and exhibits antibacterial properties. Inhaling diffused peppermint oil helps to unclog the sinuses and relieves a scratchy throat. Peppermint also acts as an expectorant, helping to reduce the severity of coughing attacks. Another one of the many peppermint oil benefits is its ability to reduce a fever. It should only be used on adults or older children; do not use it on small children or infants. Try mixing it with coconut oil and rubbing it on the back of your neck or bottom of your feet. (24)
10. Cedarwood Oil
Cedarwood essential oil helps to relieve spasmodic conditions of the respiratory system. It also helps to remove phlegm from the respiratory tract and lungs, reducing congestion from whooping cough. Rub two drops of cedarwood oil onto your chest and throat before bed to loosen phlegm and help with breathing. (25) Do not use on infants or small children.
11. Rest and Fluids
When you are fighting a serious infection like whooping cough, it’s important that you get plenty of rest throughout the day. Take naps and do not engage in physical activity until your symptoms begin to disappear. You must also stay hydrated by drinking plenty of water, coconut water or herbal tea. Coughing attacks can sometimes cause you to vomit, so sticking to smaller meals throughout the day may be helpful. Eating meals that are easy on the stomach and simple to digest can also help, such as fresh juices, smoothies and soups.
12. Prevent Spreading
If you develop whooping cough symptoms, it is very important that you prevent spreading it, especially if you have an infant in your home. Cover your mouth when you cough and wash your hands often. It’s also a good idea to wear a mask if you must be around others. When you can, stay at home and rest until you feel well again.
In infants, complications of whooping cough can be serious; they include pneumonia, slowed or stopped breathing, dehydration, weight loss due to feeding difficulties, seizures and brain damage. Because these complications can be life-threatening, call your doctor immediately if you suspect your infant or toddler has whooping cough.
Do not use essential oils on infants or children under the age of 3. If you are planning to use essential oils on your child for treating whooping cough, only do so under the care of your healthcare provider. Always do a patch test on your child’s skin (and your own) before applying oils topically.
Final Thoughts on Whooping Cough
- Whooping cough is a highly contagious respiratory disease caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis. When an infected person coughs or sneezes, the bacteria-filled droplets spray into the air and are breathed into the lungs of anyone nearby.
- In 2015, there were 20,762 cases of whooping cough in the United States (down from over 32,000 cases in 2014 and over 48,000 cases in 2012), and 6 deaths.
- Patients with whooping cough may experience severe coughing bouts. These are usually accompanied by whooping, the sound made when taking a deep breath in after coughing, and vomiting, which can lead to dehydration, difficulty breathing and being admitted to the hospital.
- Almost 90 percent of reported deaths occurring in unvaccinated infants less than 1 year old.
- The standard treatment of whooping cough has been a full dose of erythromycin for 14 days. Sensitivity and side effects to this medicine may reduce compliance and effectiveness.
- Natural treatments for whooping cough include ginger, raw honey, probiotics, bone broth and getting plenty of rest and fluids. Essential oils should not be used on infants or small children.