Isaiah: Pertussis (Whooping Cough)

"When I told my mother Isaiah was diagnosed with pertussis, she said she remembered pertussis had once been very common in our community many decades ago." 

– Isaiah's Mom

Isaiah, a Nemours patient with pertussis (whopping cough)

Isaiah was only five weeks old when he developed what his mother first believed was a common cold.

"It seemed there was nothing to worry about. He didn’t have a fever and was not stuffed up at all," says Isaiah’s mom. Still, after a few days of coughing, they decided to bring him in for a checkup.

"The doctor thought he had bronchitis," she explains. "He suggested we do misting with a saline solution, so we started that." Two weeks later, Isaiah’s coughing still hadn’t stopped, and in fact had become deeper and more frequent. His mother noticed he also began drinking less milk and was unusually sleepy. She went in for another checkup, and again the diagnosis was bronchitis.

"But the next day, he was vomiting and coughing and having a hard time eating and swallowing. I was worried." The following day, Isaiah looked better and was in good spirits, but still very sleepy and coughing. But by that evening things had gotten worse, and he had a nonstop coughing episode that lasted for more than a minute. When he coughed, his skin changed color from red to purple to blue — and the family didn’t know what to do or what was happening.

When he stopped coughing, his skin color returned normal. But mom knew something was seriously wrong, and she needed to get Isaiah help. "I have three other children, so I knew this wasn’t normal. I said, ‘Let’s go to the hospital, even though it looks like he is okay now."

Discovery of a More Serious Illness

At Nemours Children’s Hospital, Florida, clinicians moved quickly and performed tests — within one hour of arrival, Isaiah’s mother received the news of a surprising diagnosis.

"The doctors said he had pertussis," says Isaiah’s mom. "I had never heard about it." Because Isaiah kept having severe coughing spells during which he couldn’t breathe, Isaiah was sent immediately to the pediatric intensive care unit (PICU). In the PICU, Isaiah was placed on oxygen and antibiotics. Isaiah continued to cough, eyes bulging and skin turning red and then blue, and he stopped breathing several times. Fortunately, after days in the PICU, Isaiah’s cough became less severe, and he was moved to a regular hospital room. He was able to go home after spending a full week in the hospital.

"The doctors and nurses were perfect and supported us. They were there for my baby and my family. He’s fine now, but it was very scary," says Isaiah’s mom. She wants other parents to know their story so that they can avoid a similar situation. "This was serious — I could have lost him. It breaks my heart to think about other families going through this and losing their child," she says.

When she told her mother Isaiah was diagnosed with pertussis, Isaiah’s grandmother declared that she remembered pertussis had once been very common in their community many decades ago. 

Is Pertussis "Back"?

Kenneth Alexander, MD, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at Nemours Children’s Hospital, Florida points out that "Isaiah probably got his infection from an underimmunized teen or young adult who was coughing due to unrecognized pertussis." 

Dr. Alexander explains that pertussis immunization could prevent whooping cough. Unfortunately, Isaiah was vulnerable to pertussis because he was so young — children don’t routinely receive pertussis vaccine until age two months, and data suggest that the vaccine is not fully protective until after a second dose is received at age four months. He also notes that:

  • Doses of pertussis vaccine are normally given at ages two months, four months, six months, 15-18 months, and again at 4-6 years of age.
  • Because pertussis is common (but often unrecognized) in teenagers and young adults, an additional booster dose is recommended at age 11-12 years.

Prevention Is Key

Fortunately, Isaiah did well. He didn’t develop any of the severe complications of whooping cough (which range from bleeding in the brain to leaks in the lung and even life-threatening pneumonia). "I’m so thankful my baby is okay," says his mom. "But I hope more parents will hear our story and have their children and teens vaccinated." 

Dr. Alexander explains that, "Pertussis vaccine not only protects the people who are vaccinated but also protects babies like Isaiah who are too young to be vaccinated. In short, when we immunize ourselves and our children against pertussis, we are giving a gift of prevention to all children."