Pertussis, or whooping cough, is a highly contagious illness caused by the bacteria Bordatella pertussis. It is spread from person to person, usually through coughing or sneezing. The bacteria, which only infects humans, releases toxins which damage the respiratory tract.
Pertussis usually starts with symptoms that are identical to the common cold: congestion, runny nose, mild cough, fever. After a period of 1-2 weeks the cough becomes severe. Often children will have coughing “fits.” They may suck in a deep breath after these fits causing the “whooping” noise that gives the disease its name. Many children cough so hard that they vomit. Young infants may have only mild cough or no cough at all but stop breathing. Older children and adults often have less severe illness with lingering cough. They can go undiagnosed and spread the disease to more susceptible younger children. Symptoms can last 10 weeks or longer.
Pertussis is a very serious illness. In addition to the symptoms mentioned above, children may develop pneumonia, seizures, encephalopathy (disease of the brain) and even die as a result.
Pertussis is diagnosed with a nasal swab in the office and treated with a course of antibiotics. Unfortunately, antibiotics are only effective in limiting the time a patient is contagious. Once the cough is severe, there is little that will help relieve symptoms other than time.
The most effective weapon in the fight against this illness is prevention. The whooping cough vaccine is a standard part of childhood immunizations. Make sure your children are up to date, including older children who should receive a booster, called TdaP, at age 11. All adults who care for small children (moms, dads, grandparents, aunts, uncles, babysitters) should also receive the TdaP vaccine because older siblings and caregivers are almost always the source of infection in younger children.
For more information, visit the CDC website. If your child develops symptoms of whooping cough, call for an appointment right away.
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