Whooping Cough or Tall Tale?
February 17, 2009 10:31 AM   Subscribe

Could my roommate really have whooping cough? Because I'm skeptical.

I'm in college, and as soon as everyone returned from home for the spring semester, colds started spreading, as they tend to do. A cold started going around the suite in my dorm, luckily bypassing me.

Two of my suitemates have since had near-constant coughing. Both of them are the only two in the suite who smoke cigarettes, and it sounds to me like typical coughing fits exasperated by smoking so much.

One of the roommates went home over the weekend and upon returning told us he had been to the doctor and his doctor told him he had whooping cough. He went on to say how he was apparently "the first one in our generation to get it." I am not entirely sure what he means by that, but color me surprised; there's not much of a whoop to it, it's more of a shallow smoker's cough.

This roommate has a history of... story telling. He's fond of stretching the truth and of telling tall tales. Sometimes I’d just call it outright lying. Like during freshman year, when a rapper who was performing at our school apparently invited him into his limousine and he drank champagne with him. Or the time he drunkenly stumbled onto the lawn of the university’s president and had cigars with him. Or the time when he got into a friend’s car and "ten cop cars pulled up", and the friend whose car it was looks puzzled and says it was only one. You get the idea; the guy is constantly stumbling onto amazing and fantastic situations which few people can verify.

So needless to say I’m skeptical, and I want to know how likely is it that he has this? He’s not on any antibiotics, just CVS-brand robitussin. Another friend told me that he said this is because the doctor told him there was no need for antibiotics because he was already recovering.

IANAD, but the whole thing strikes me as fishy. Is it possible to have and recover from whooping cough without antibiotics? Wouldn’t the health department get involved? Isn’t whooping cough highly contagious? I feel like if he really had this then my university would be sending out notices and emails and making him stay in from class or something.

Please stick to the likelihood of my roommate having or not having this disease, instead of whether or not I should confront him about it or how to deal with it. I’ll handle that part myself, but right now I just want to know if this is Just Another Story or a reason to be concerned about my health.
posted by anonymous to Health & Fitness (35 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
The tell tale symptom of whooping cough is the distinctive "whoop" sound of the cough. I mean, that's where it got the name. If he had whooping cough, you wouldn't be saying his cough sounded like a smoker's hack. He's exaggerating.
posted by acorncup at 10:38 AM on February 17, 2009

Pertussis (whooping cough) is actually a pretty common adult infection-- take a look at this info sheet from Johns Hopkins. In general, the danger is for very young/old patients, or people with compromised immune systems.
If confirmed (most cases are not) it's usually treated with erythromycin.
posted by BundleOfHers at 10:39 AM on February 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Ps.. the "whoop" of whooping cough is (I believe) more characteristic in children, and may not be present in adults.
posted by BundleOfHers at 10:40 AM on February 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

In middle school, a friend of mine was diagnosed with whooping cough. The sound was pretty distinctive, and I'm pretty sure it was treated with antibiotics.

The health department did not get involved.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:44 AM on February 17, 2009

I stand corrected; my experience is with children.
posted by acorncup at 10:45 AM on February 17, 2009

posted by 517 at 10:45 AM on February 17, 2009

The sound was pretty distinctive, and I'm pretty sure it was treated with antibiotics.

A friend of mine said she knew a girl who had it once and said "it sounded like the death of a hundred bears."

This does not sound like the death of even one or two bears. I remain skeptical.
posted by CitrusFreak12 at 10:48 AM on February 17, 2009 [8 favorites]

Oh, and according to wikipedia, antibiotics are given to shorten the infectious period, not to alter the course of the disease. Perhaps the doctor thought your roomie was no longer infectious?
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 10:48 AM on February 17, 2009

Incidences and outbreaks of whooping cough/pertussis have been on the rise for the past 10 years or more. (CDC.)

Could he have it? Absolutely. Does he have it? Dunno. Is he the vaunted harbinger of a new generation of hackers? Absolutely not.
posted by mudpuppie at 10:52 AM on February 17, 2009

"the first one in our generation to get it."
That is definitely not true. My college-age cousin and friend (a bit older -- late 20s) have both had whooping cough in the past few years.
posted by Airhen at 10:57 AM on February 17, 2009

FWIW, there's whooping cough going around my county and I (age 34) just got my booster shot.

It's *possible*.
posted by unixrat at 11:05 AM on February 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Almost every wall at our pediatrician is covered with posters addressing Pertussis / whooping cough in an effort to sop its spread to babies.

Does he have it? Probably not, but possible. Keep him away from babies, and if you get the cough, you might as well.

Wash your hands alot.
posted by bottlebrushtree at 11:35 AM on February 17, 2009

Assuming your characterization is fairly accurate, I'd be skeptical, too. Doesn't mean that it's impossible, but yeah, whooping cough is not characterized by a shallow hack, even if you don't do the quintessential "whooop!"

I’ll handle that part myself, but right now I just want to know if this is Just Another Story or a reason to be concerned about my health.

Well, there's a good reason to hit the clinic and ask your question to an actual doctor and call his bluff at the same time. (If it turns out he's a melodramatic twit, you can tell him he owes you for the doc visit.)
posted by desuetude at 11:38 AM on February 17, 2009

It is possible. I had it as a toddler (mid-1970s), even though I had been vaccinated, and none of the young docs recognized it - it took my older peds doctor to recognize it because he had seen it regularly in children before there were common vaccinations (he was really up there in years at the time). The young guys were treating it as pneumonia or some other really bad cough.

That being said, it doesn't just sound like a bad cough. My parents said it was really, really bad - scary enough to take me to the hospital because I couldn't breathe. The "whoop" is there because you can't catch your breath. It's not just garden variety hacking. The health department wasn't called for me, but I don't remember if there were antibiotics involved in the hospital trip.

So, I can't verify that older kids and adults get the "whoop" just because I had it, since I was little. I will call bullshit on his being the first person "in a generation" to get it. I may not be college age anymore, but 15 years older isn't quite far enough out to count as "a generation". Possible, yes, but the likelihood seems sort of low.
posted by Cyrie at 11:41 AM on February 17, 2009

He went on to say how he was apparently "the first one in our generation to get it."

That's just not true. There are a few pertussis deaths every year in the US.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:44 AM on February 17, 2009

Best answer: Last year, my university went through an outbreak of whooping cough; so he's definitely not the "first one in our generation" to get it. Many students were quarantined and they sent all 4,000 of us home early for Christmas break. If he really did have it, he would probably be quarantined until he was no longer contagious or on antibiotics. It takes about 2 weeks to get out of the contagious stage.

Should you be worried about your health? Yes. Because he is telling you that he has this disease.
Is it another one of his stories? Most likely. But don't play around with it.
posted by bobber at 11:47 AM on February 17, 2009

I can attest that at least some adults get the whooping part of the whooping cough. I sure did, anyway. And so did my cousin and my neighbor. We were all adults when we contracted it. It's not fun and it's certainly NOT your garden variety smoker's cough. I was on antibiotics (don't know about the other two) because the infection was caught early. According to my nurse friend and her doctor husband (and that Johns Hopkins article linked above), after about 2 weeks a person enters a certain stage where antibiotics aren't efficacious.

Sounds like your roommate is the consummate exaggerator.
posted by cooker girl at 11:52 AM on February 17, 2009

FWIW, I would bet that "the first one in our generation to get it" likely originated from his doctor telling him something along the lines of "This is the first case I've treated in someone your age."

Nthing most of what everyone else has said. IANAD, but whooping cough seems to be characterized by violent coughing fits that make breathing difficult. Hard to mistake that for a smoker's cough. Still, better safe than sorry.
posted by specialagentwebb at 12:01 PM on February 17, 2009

Whooping cough is insanely contagious, and very, very dangerous, especially to children. If he was diagnosed with whooping cough, then he should not be on the campus until lab tests confirm that he's not a vector for disease spread.

(The whoop is the sound that sufferers make when they're trying to get oxygen after coughing, not the cough itself.)

From medicinenet: Antibiotics directed against Bordetella pertussis can be effective in reducing the severity of pertussis when administered early in the course of the disease. Antibiotic therapy can also help reduce the risk of transmission of the bacterium to other household members as well as to others who may come into contact with an infected person. Unfortunately, most people with pertussis are diagnosed later with the condition in the second (paroxysmal) stage of the disease. Treatment with antibiotics is recommended for anyone who has had the disease for less than 21 days. Azithromycin (Zithromax), clarithromycin (Biaxin), erythromycin, and trimethoprim/sulfamethoxazole are antibiotics which have been shown to be effective in treating whooping cough. It is unclear whether antibiotics have any benefit for people who have been ill with pertussis for longer periods, although antibiotic therapy is still often considered for this group. There is no proven effective treatment for the paroxysms of coughing that accompany pertussis.

Antibiotics are also routinely administered to people who have had close contact with an infected person, regardless of their vaccination status.

If he actually *has* whooping cough, he should probably be quarantined. Tell him that, and tell him that you're going to alert the university health department. If he has it, he's putting a lot of people at risk.
posted by dejah420 at 12:01 PM on February 17, 2009

We had a confirmed outbreak of whooping cough at a couple of local middle schools in my city. It's definitely a somewhat common ailment, and is not always accompanied by a characteristic "whoop" sound. However, it IS very contagious, and can be extremely dangerous to small children and older folks. If he does have a confirmed case, I agree with the quarantined advice. He should not be spreading that around campus.
posted by I_love_the_rain at 12:16 PM on February 17, 2009

More data in support of "sure, this could be pertussis", from relatively current journal articles..
"Among immunized individuals, especially adolescents and adults, the disease is often mild and often confused with others common causes of chronic cough in this age group, such as asthma and postnasal drip. For example, 13 to 32% of adolescents and adults with a cough lasting > 6 days have serologic evidence of infection with B pertussis." (link)
"Pertussis is less severe in vaccinated individuals. One study involving vaccinated people 5–30 years of age showed that the 3 typical stages of pertussis were absent, the clinical course was characterized by cough lasting a median of 3 weeks, and only 6% of the patients with pertussis had the classic whoop." (link)
posted by BundleOfHers at 12:23 PM on February 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

The bit about quarantining was just what I wanted to know, especially bobber's comment, a good example of how I thought a university would handle the situation.

It didn't seem right to me that his doctor would just say "oh you have whooping cough, but it's ok it's not contagious anymore, go pick up some robitussin." I thought there would be more procedure to it, or the proper authorities would be notified to help keep track out outbreaks or something at the very least.

I've emailed health services with my concerns that my roommate says he has whooping cough, asking if there is anything I can do to keep from catching it, and I may call them later since I don't trust emails to reach the proper people.

Anything else you guys can contribute would be appreciated as always.
posted by CitrusFreak12 at 12:24 PM on February 17, 2009

I had whooping cough in college, despite being immunized against it as a tot. For me, it was characterized by a choking cough (one or two coughs followed by the utter inability to breathe), coughing so hard I barfed (especially if I had just eaten or had water). So it sounded like: Cough, cough, terrified silence with bulging eyes, then a HUGE gasp of intake of air when I could suddenly breath again. That's the tell tale "whoop." It sucked.
posted by bonheur at 12:46 PM on February 17, 2009

Here's a page that auto-loads a sound file of a child with whooping cough coughing. It makes me really uncomfortable to listen to it. Are you hearing anything like that?
posted by donnagirl at 1:02 PM on February 17, 2009

I won't pass judgment on the roommate, but I call definite BS on the "first in our generation" story.

Among other things, I am 21 and have had whooping cough, as have many other posters. It's also a fairly common disease in schools- less so universities, but it happens.

Nthing the whooping couch = puking, fainting, and generally being a total wreck for a long time.

When I had it, I was out of school for several weeks, and very, very ill. My dad said that if I didn't get better by X date, he'd take me to the Caribbean for sunshine and rest. Of course, I got better the day before the stated date. Ah, luck. I wish I had it.
posted by charmcityblues at 1:10 PM on February 17, 2009

Pertussis causes a lot of death every year, and is highly contagious. There really is a high-pitched "whoop" sound. If you don't hear it...its probably not there.

If you have any doubt...ask him to move out or prove via medical documentation that he doesn't have it.
posted by hal_c_on at 1:52 PM on February 17, 2009

I had pertussis a little over a year ago, and recovered without antibiotics. Just as another datapoint -- since I sympathize deeply with having the kind of roommate who'd pull this kind of annoying shit.
posted by Coatlicue at 3:38 PM on February 17, 2009

I had whooping cough in 2002. I was in a bed for a month, coughing. I woke up my neighbour next door, coughing. I would cough, quite regularly, until I vomited. Is your roomate doing any of that?
posted by jokeefe at 4:20 PM on February 17, 2009

Coughing until vomiting? Yeah he's done that once or twice. Then again I did that a couple times last year when I had a particularly bad coughing fit. As far as waking others go, we share a wall and it's never been bad enough to keep or wake me up.

His coughing has never been so bad that he's gasping for breath, though. Just a constant chain of double coughs. Cough-cough. Pause, silent inhale. Cough-cough. Repeat.
posted by CitrusFreak12 at 5:09 PM on February 17, 2009

Best answer: There is a test for pertussis.

If your roommate has pertussis, his doctor should have reported it to the state health board. "Should" being the key word there.
posted by dejah420 at 5:12 PM on February 17, 2009

Citrus freak, that letter is absolutely the right thing to have done.
posted by theora55 at 7:12 PM on February 17, 2009

You might also want to contact whoever it is that runs the dorms, e.g. Student Life or whatever the analog is on your campus. I'm absolutely sure THEY would want to know if they have a contagious disease vector (uhh, annoying roommate) in their building.
posted by media_itoku at 7:41 PM on February 17, 2009

Health services doesn´t seem like they are much help. Contact housing/residential life and the dean of students. I´d leave out the part about how your roommate exaggerates sometimes and just state that he has told you he has whooping cough.
posted by yohko at 8:53 PM on February 17, 2009

Had whooping cough in college, '98 or '99. It sucked. I'd cough until my throat bled, or until it seized up and I'd semi-suffocate for a while. Life altering terrible coughing fits for a week or two as I recall. So, yeah, it happens, no he's not first. Maybe first for that doctor for this year.
posted by Shutter at 12:43 AM on February 18, 2009

FWIW, my 60-year old (otherwise healthy) mother was recently diagnosed with whooping cough and not given antibiotics. The doctor told her she'd get better in time. She was coughing A LOT but it wasn't super whoop-y.
posted by jrichards at 7:48 AM on February 19, 2009

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