New Research Sheds Light on Whooping Cough Treatments

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Kentucky has recently reported an outbreak of whooping cough, also known as pertussis. This contagious respiratory disease can be particularly severe in young children and unvaccinated individuals. Amid this outbreak, understanding the effectiveness of various treatments is crucial. This blog aims to break down recent scientific findings on treatments for whooping cough (pulling from a large review article), providing insights for the general public.

Understanding Whooping Cough

Whooping cough is caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis. It’s characterized by severe coughing spells that can last for weeks. The disease is known for the “whoop” sound that occurs when the patient breathes in after a coughing fit. In severe cases, it can lead to complications like pneumonia, dehydration, and even death, especially in infants.

Current Treatment Landscape

Traditionally, antibiotics such as azithromycin and erythromycin are used to treat whooping cough. While these antibiotics help reduce the spread of the disease, they don’t significantly alleviate the symptoms, particularly the persistent cough. Thus, there is a pressing need for effective treatments that can ease the severe coughing spells.

Exploring New Treatments

The recent review, including 12 trials with 578 participants, examined various interventions aimed at reducing the severity of paroxysmal cough in whooping cough. These trials tested different treatments, including antihistamines, corticosteroids, beta2-adrenergic agonists, and pertussis-specific immunoglobulin.

Key Findings:

  1. Diphenhydramine (Antihistamine):
    • One trial with 49 participants found no significant reduction in coughing episodes. The mean difference in coughing spells per 24 hours was 1.9, with a confidence interval ranging from -4.7 to 8.5.
  2. Pertussis Immunoglobulin:
    • Another trial involving 47 participants suggested a possible reduction in whoops per 24 hours (mean reduction of -3.1 whoops). However, this did not translate into shorter hospital stays.
  3. Corticosteroids (Dexamethasone):
    • In a trial with 11 participants, dexamethasone did not significantly decrease the length of hospital stays.
  4. Salbutamol (Beta2-adrenergic Agonist):
    • Two trials with a total of 42 participants showed no significant change in coughing paroxysms per day.

Implications of the Findings

Despite extensive research, the trials did not demonstrate statistically significant benefits for any of the treatments tested. This highlights a critical gap in our understanding and management of whooping cough symptoms. The limited effectiveness of these treatments underscores the need for more high-quality research to identify effective antitussive therapies.

The Importance of Continued Research

Given the increasing prevalence of whooping cough and the limited success of current treatments, there is an urgent need for well-designed, large-scale trials. These should follow rigorous standards to ensure reliable and applicable results. Such research could pave the way for discovering new, effective treatments to relieve the debilitating symptoms of whooping cough.

Let us know in the comments!

To foster a deeper understanding and stimulate community engagement, consider the following questions:

  1. What are your thoughts on the current treatment options for whooping cough?
  2. How can communities better support individuals affected by whooping cough during outbreaks?


The recent outbreak in Kentucky highlights the ongoing challenges in managing whooping cough. While vaccines remain the best defense against the disease, finding effective treatments for those already infected is crucial. The current body of research, although extensive, indicates that more work is needed to develop interventions that can effectively reduce the severity of coughing spells and improve patient outcomes.

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About the Author

Jon Scaccia, with a Ph.D. in clinical-community psychology and a research fellowship at the US Department of Health and Human Services with expertise in public health systems and quality programs. He specializes in implementing innovative, data-informed strategies to enhance community health and development. Jon helped develop the R=MC² readiness model, which aids organizations in effectively navigating change.

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