At one point in history – during the early 1900’s – whooping cough was one of the most common and serious illnesses affecting children. As was the case with many childhood plagues, children began to receive regular immunizations and cases of the disease dropped dramatically.
Now, partially because of waning immunity, cases of whooping cough are on the rise – and affecting people of all ages.
What is Whooping Cough?
“Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, is caused by an organism known as B. pertussis,” explained Paula S. Barry, MD, an internal medicine physician at Penn Family and Internal Medicine Longwood. A highly contagious bacterial disease, whooping cough is characterized by uncontrollable, violent coughing, which can sometimes end in a "whooping" sound when the person breathes in.
The first symptoms are similar to those of a common cold: runny nose, sneezing, mild cough and low-grade fever. After a week or so, the dry, irritating cough can evolve into coughing spells.
Dr. Barry explained that in the past, this was an illness mostly seen in children who had not been adequately protected by immunizations. Over the past few years, though, there have been more and more cases of adults being diagnosed. “Adults and teens with whooping cough tend to have milder or atypical symptoms, such as a prolonged cough, rather than coughing spells, or coughing without the whoop,” said Dr. Barry.
How Do I Protect My Family from Whooping Cough?
As stated above, anyone can be at risk of catching pertussis. Health care and child care providers, as well as parents and grandparents that may be around an infant under one year of age, are at the highest risk. It is also important for pregnant women to speak with their obstetrician about being immunized. “It is now recommended for pregnant women to have a booster with each pregnancy,” said Dr. Barry.
The best way to prevent whooping cough is to get vaccinated. The recommended vaccine for infants and children is called DTaP. This is a combination vaccine that protects against three diseases: diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis. Tetanus can cause “lock jaw” and muscle spasms, while diphtheria can cause a thick coating on the back of your throat.
Tdap, a vaccine for adolescents and adults, has been approved as a booster against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis. It is recommended that adults get Tdap rather than their next regular tetanus booster. Furthermore, Dr. Barry explained that, “Current guidelines are recommending adults receive a booster regardless of the time frame from the last td shot. In other words, they do not need to wait ten years in order to have the booster with pertussis.”
If you have additional questions, talk with your health care provider. A little bit of prevention can go a long way.