Whooping cough may sound like an ancient disease, but it’s alive and well – and highly contagious. “One of the biggest misconceptions is there isn’t a lot of whooping cough in the community. It’s not something that’s been eradicated,” says Melissa Kleschen, M.D., a Providence pediatrician in western Montana.
Otherwise known as pertussis, whooping cough is a bacterial respiratory illness that causes violent coughing fits, making it difficult to breathe. The cough is often followed with a breath marked by a “whoop” sound.
Pertussis is transmitted through airborne contact from person to person. Infected individuals are most contagious for about two weeks after the cough starts. Many infants contract pertussis from people who may not even know they have it. “Lots of adults who have pertussis don’t experience the classic whoop,” says Dr. Kleschen.
Symptoms and complications
The disease typically begins with traditional cold-like symptoms that may last one to two weeks, including:
- Runny nose
- Low-grade fever
- Mild cough
As the disease progresses, new symptoms may develop, including:
- Fits of rapid coughing
- Breaths marked by high-pitched whoop
Pertussis can be very dangerous, especially for infants. About 50 percent of infected babies younger than 1 year old require hospital care. Complications may include:
- Low oxygen levels
- Trouble eating
- Apnea (a pause in breathing)
Consult a provider if you think your child may have pertussis. Tests are available to confirm the presence of bacteria. A provider can prescribe antibiotics to treat pertussis and reduce the contagious period. Do not give your child cough medicine unless advised by a provider. Cough medicine will likely be ineffective, and it’s not recommended for children younger than four.
“The best protection is vaccination,” says Dr. Kleschen. There are two kinds of vaccines, DTaP and Tdap. Both vaccines help protect against pertussis, tetanus and diphtheria. Children should take five doses of DTaP starting at 2 months, then 4 months, 6 months, 15 to 18 months, and 4 to 6 years. If you fall behind, don’t fret. Just ask your doctor about the catch-up immunization schedule.
Older kids and adults should get the Tdap vaccine (only one dose). The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a dose of Tdap during every pregnancy to help keep newborns healthy. Dr. Kleschen suggests that new parents, grandparents and anyone else who is going to be around children should make sure they are vaccinated. If you’re unsure, talk with your provider.
No vaccine is 100 percent effective. As such, it’s important to adopt healthy habits, especially if you have a baby in the house. Avoid sick people. Cough into a tissue or sleeve, and practice good hand hygiene such as washing thoroughly with soap and water, or using sanitizer.