Whooping cough. A crazy, scary illness that children come down with if they don't get vaccinated. That's what I had always thought it was anyway. I was impressively under-informed.
In late January, I was on a little vacation with my parents and I noticed my throat tasted funny, in that way that oncoming sickness often tastes. It was like that for a couple days and then nothing. I felt totally fine. A couple more days and I developed what I thought was a no-frills cold. My nose was a bit runny, I was a tad warm, and my throat was sore. Eventually, it was very sore. "On fire" sore, at times.
After a couple of weeks of this, I started to cough and my throat was raw. I blamed myself for clearing it too much, knowing that I tend to obsess over throat irritation. Anyway, the cough and my throat of fire still didn't seem all that menacing. My job is flexible and I try to avoid getting other people sick, so I spent a good amount of time working from home and it was no big deal.
It's not about the whoop
Come week three, I developed a much more distinctive cough. Not the semi-satisfying kind that gets gunk out or at least moves it to a place that allows you to breathe more easily. This was a cough that made me gag while simultaneously feeling like it had no real cause. The urge would come on without warning and, seconds later, I'd be gasping and red-faced, with tears streaming down my cheeks. Turns out this was the aptly named "choking cough," which, if you Google it, is one of the trademark symptoms of whooping cough --- by some accounts, even more telltale than its namesake "whoop," which only some people exhibit. Around this time, my parents (a physician and a former owner of a medical transcription company) told me I probably had whooping cough.
Five weeks after my initial sore throat, I went to dinner with a friend. (The infectious period for whooping cough is about three weeks.) I mentioned I may have battled whooping cough and someone else at the table said she thought she had too. Still moving through the shock of understanding this is an illness people actually get, I was incredulous. Until she said something to the effect of, "The worst part was lying down at night." If what I had was whooping cough, this is the truest statement that one can make about it.
I coughed plenty while I was sick. I would estimate around 10 bouts of the choking cough each day with less debilitating coughing in-between. But lying down to go to bed apparently angers whooping cough and causes it to rack the body with suffocating fits. For hours. Every night.
This issue became even worse during week four, when, while attempting to stifle my coughs during a movie, I felt a click near my lower rib cage. It was as though my rib and my muscles were going their separate ways, causing the kind of pain that makes you struggle to form any unrelated thought. Instead, I focused on weighing the value of my next breath versus how much it would hurt. Whatever happened to my rib, it made me walk with a slight limp to hold it steady and sleep with ice wrapped tightly against me. I loaded up on cough suppressants and chain-sucked lozenges. By week five, I traded that pain for an injured rib near my collarbone and a strain in the muscles along my spine. This was an enormous upgrade.
After about six weeks, I felt human again. The hacking cough continued to pop up a couple times a day until week eight. Each time I would casually bolt for a bathroom where I could gag over the sink in peace. (This process became substantially less distressing once my father told me I would just pass out and stop coughing if, during these episodes, I really couldn't catch my breathe.)
Why I'm telling you this
My penchant for detail might gloss over some of the emotion but let me be explicit: this was the sickest I've ever been. It hurt. Every night I was delirious, frozen by pain, and terrified in that special witching hour kind of way of next the cough. I want to relay my (probable) experience with whooping cough to spread some understanding about what's at stake for people who don't get vaccinated, especially children. I felt quite sorry for myself when I was going through this but I can't imagine what it would be like for a child or infant. In infants less than 1 year old, whooping cough results in hospitalization about 50 percent of the time.
Understand that whooping cough is terrible but that a lot of diseases we can vaccinate against are much worse. Get your children vaccinated and make sure you are up to date as well. (Hint, hint: flu shot.)