Whooping Cough—Is that Still a Thing?

Some folks around the library are getting their kids ready for school, which includes making sure they have all the vaccinations up to date. If you’re unsure about vaccinations and what they entail, Howard County Public School system provides a nice resource. Many of us were pretty surprised to hear that whooping cough was among the vaccinations, though medical offices tend to refer to it by it’s formal name of Pertussis.

Here’s a little bit of info on it from our favorite quick medical info database, MedlinePlus: “Whooping cough is an infectious bacterial disease that causes uncontrollable coughing. The name comes from the noise you make when you take a breath after you cough. You may have choking spells or may cough so hard that you vomit.” Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? But it also sounds like something from long ago? Why is there still a vaccine?

Well, according to our friends at the CDC, “Reported cases of pertussis vary from year to year and tend to peak every 3-5 years. In 2010, 27,550 cases of pertussis were reported in the U.S.—and many more cases go unreported. Twenty-seven deaths were reported – 25 of these deaths were in children younger than 1 year old.” That’s right, the Whooping Cough is still around, still a killer, and is most common in infants and children, mainly affecting infants younger than 6 months old, before they’re adequately protected by immunizations, and kids 11-18, whose immunity has started to wane.

This is pretty scary business. So it helps to know the signs and symptoms. The first symptoms of whooping cough, unfortunately, are quite similar to those of a common cold. They include runny nose, sneezing, mild cough, and low-grade fever. Not so bad, so far, but then KidsHealth goes on to enlighten us further: “After about 1 to 2 weeks, the dry, irritating cough evolves into coughing spells. During a coughing spell, which can last for more than a minute, the child may turn red or purple. At the end of a spell, the child may make a characteristic whooping sound when breathing in or may vomit. Between spells, the child usually feels well.”

And as if the early symptoms resembling a cold and the sufferer usually feeling well when not coughing didn’t already make it a tricky enough illness to spot, not all children will develop the characteristic whoop and sometimes infants don’t cough at all. “Infants may look as if they’re gasping for air with a reddened face and may actually stop breathing (called apnea) for a few seconds during particularly bad spells. Adults and teens with whooping cough may have milder or atypical symptoms, such as a prolonged cough (rather than coughing spells) or coughing without the whoop.”And, wouldn’t you know, Whooping Cough is also highly contagious.

So what’s the best way to fight off this seemingly archaic beast? The CDC recommends vaccination. “Parents can also help protect infants by keeping them away as much as possible from anyone who has cold symptoms or is coughing…. In the US, the recommended pertussis vaccine for children is called DtaP…. For maximum protection against pertussis, children need five DTaP shots. The first three shots are given at 2, 4, and 6 months of age. The fourth shot is given at 15 through 18 months of age, and a fifth shot is given when a child enters school, at 4 through 6 years of age.”

Preteens going to the doctor for their regular check-up at age 11 or 12 years should also get booster vaccine, and pregnant women who have not been previously vaccinated with Tdap should get one dose of Tdap during the third trimester or late second trimester, or immediately postpartum. And guess what, grown-ups, you’re not off the hook; adults 19 years of age and older who didn’t get Tdap as a preteen or teen should get one dose of Tdap. The easiest thing for adults to do is to get Tdap instead of their next regular tetanus booster—the Td shot that is recommended for adults every 10 years.