The news that two Plano high school students were diagnosed with pertussis in November 2015 has led to more patients asking me about the disease commonly known as whooping cough. These cases offer a good reminder to make sure your and your children’s vaccination records are up to date.
Cases of pertussis, a highly contagious respiratory tract infection, have been steadily increasing in recent years. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reported a 15 percent increase in pertussis cases between 2013 and 2014, from 28,639 to 32,971. In Texas, there were 2,576 cases reported in 2014.
Whooping cough mostly strikes children who are too young to have completed the course of vaccinations and teenagers and adults whose immunity has faded. While deaths from whooping cough are rare, infants are most at risk, making it important that pregnant women and people who have close contact with infants make sure they are adequately vaccinated.
What are the symptoms of whooping cough?
It’s often difficult to spot the early symptoms of pertussis. Whooping cough initially looks like a common cold:
- Runny nose with clear drainage
- Low fever, sore throat
- Mild cough
However, after a couple weeks, patients often develop a persistent, hacking cough followed by a high-pitched “whooping” sound. This uncontrollable coughing also may result in vomiting. If you or your child is experiencing prolonged coughing spells that result in vomiting, a “whooping” sound upon inhalation, or difficulty breathing, see your doctor immediately.
Whooping cough is treated with common antibiotics, and your physician also may recommend antibiotics for household members or others who may have been exposed to prevent spreading the disease.
If you have been exposed to someone who has been diagnosed with whooping cough, talk with your doctor about whether you should start antibiotics and watch closely for symptoms, which can take up to 21 days to appear.
Who needs the whooping cough vaccine and booster?
The best way to prevent whooping cough is through vaccination. Everyone must be sure to get the proper vaccine and booster. Children should receive five doses of the DTaP vaccine – which protects against diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis – by age 6. This immunity can wear off, so adolescents and adults need a Tdap booster at age 11 and then every 10 years after. The Tdap is similar to the DTaP but has a reduced dose of the diphtheria and pertussis vaccines.
Infants are especially vulnerable to whooping cough. Pertussis can cause babies to develop apnea – a pause in breathing – or pneumonia. About half of babies younger than 1 year old who get whooping cough end up in the hospital. Because of this, we recommend that women get a Tdap vaccination during every pregnancy, usually between 27 and 36 weeks. This allows mom to pass on antibodies through the placenta, giving her baby short-term protection until the immune system develops enough to receive the first vaccination.
Whooping cough is preventable, so talk to your physician about whether you or your children need the Tdap booster, especially if you are pregnant or have close contact with infants. And if you are experiencing a cough lasting more than two weeks or if it is followed a “whooping” sound, see your doctor immediately.