Christine of Palmerston North asks :-

Is it true that flying cures whooping cough?

Robin Taylor, of Otago University's Respiratory Research Unit, responded.

Whooping cough (pertussis) remains an important potential cause of respiratory disease. It is famous for the characteristic cough, and this may go on for some weeks even despite antibiotic therapy (the 100 day cough).

It occurs in cycles - with a mini-epidemic every three to four years. Peaks in incidence occurred in New Zealand in 2000 (approx. 4000 cases) and in 2004 (approx. 3500 cases). Adults as well as children are affected, although young children are the most vulnerable. Females are subject to complications more than males but the reason for this is unknown. Although up to 8 per cent of cases have been immunized, this is not an argument against immunization. Indeed after the introduction of immunization, rates fell in most Western countries by 5 to100 fold.

There is still a small mortality associated with pertussis (1 per cent). But perhaps of more concern is that whooping cough can be complicated by other infections and the advent of bronchiectasis, a chronic debilitating condition characterized by permanent scarring and narrowing of the airways and susceptibility to frequent chest infections for the rest of life.

There is a popular impression that flying improves the cough but the origins of this observation are unknown. Perhaps the lower humidity and/or pressure in a commercial aircraft cabin, or being in a public place and having to suppress the cough in such a confined environment, are factors which have some benefit. But one could hardly recommend it - at least in its early stages (first 21 days or so) the cough will be highly infectious to others.