If you’ve had a cough that you just can’t seem to shake, you’re not alone.
Cases of whooping cough - sometimes called the "100-day cough" - are on the rise in England and Wales, having increased by roughly 230 per cent compared to last year, according to figures from the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).
Between July and the end of November 2023, there were 716 reported occurrences of whooping cough, which is three times higher than the same period in 2022.
These numbers remain lower than in pre-pandemic years, however.
Officially known as pertussis, whooping cough is a highly contagious bacterial infection of the lungs and breathing tubes.
The disease is most dangerous in infants, the World Health Organisation (WHO) states, also warning that people with pertussis are most contagious up to about three weeks after the cough begins.
What are the symptoms of whooping cough?
Early symptoms usually appear seven to 10 days after infection and include a mild fever, runny nose, sore throat, and cough, which gradually develops into a hacking cough and then a whooping one (hence the name). This can be especially persistent, sometimes lasting for weeks or even months, according to the NHS.
Some adults may also experience rib pain from coughing so much or, in more extreme cases, a hernia.
While whooping cough affects all ages and is usually mild, it can be more serious for babies and very young children. In particular, babies under the age of 6 months have a higher chance of suffering from pneumonia, breathing difficulties, and seizures.
For this reason, pregnant women are recommended to get vaccinated to protect their babies from birth while young babies are offered three doses of the whooping cough jab at eight, twelve, and 16 weeks old.
Why are cases rising?
In the 1950s, there were over 100,000 suspected cases of whooping cough in England and Wales per year, the Oxford Vaccine Group, a vaccine research group within the Department of Paediatrics at the University of Oxford, reports.
The development of a vaccine for children led to a dramatic fall in these numbers and helped prevent thousands of deaths.
The COVID-19 pandemic is the most likely reason for the current increase in pertussis cases, according to the UKHSA, which linked lockdown measures to reduced immunity and a fall in vaccination rates due to disruptions caused to medical services.
"Before the introduction of routine immunisation, whooping cough used to affect tens of thousands of people. Thanks to vaccination this has dropped dramatically but the infection hasn’t gone away completely as neither infection nor vaccination can provide life-long protection," Dr Gayatri Amirthalingam, Consultant Epidemiologist at UK Health Security Agency said in a statement.
"As expected, we are now seeing cases of whooping cough increase again so it’s vital pregnant women ensure they get vaccinated to protect their baby".