News | Published September 28, 2012 | Written by Craig Collison, MD

Is whooping cough something I should still be concerned that my child could contract?

With the success of whooping cough vaccines, many people assume that these types of outbreaks no longer occur; however, the reality is that whooping cough is highly contagious and remains one of the most common illnesses among vaccine-preventable diseases. Both children and adults can contract the disease.

"Whooping cough" is the layman's term for an infection with bacteria named pertussis. It is known as "whooping cough" due to the characteristic "whoop" sound that often occurs with the illness. When an infected patient endures a long coughing spell, it is followed by a forced inhalation as they try to catch their breath, making a high-pitched "whoop" noise.

The illness is long and protracted, often lasting between six to eight weeks, and can have serious complications, especially in young infants. Complications can include pneumonia, convulsions, brain damage from lack of oxygen and even death.

To help prevent whooping cough, vaccination is vital. Vaccination against pertussis has been available for several decades now, and is the best defense available to prevent children and adults from becoming ill. The DTaP shot, which is an injection with whole-cell pertussis, is given at 2, 4, 6 and 15 months, followed by a booster shot prior to kindergarten. Until 2004, this was the extent of pertussis vaccination; however, physicians were finding that defenses against pertussis were waning in teenagers and adults, so a new tetanus booster was developed in an attempt to extend recipients' protection. This is known as the Tdap, or by the brand name Adacel. The Tdap vaccine should be given at age 11 and then every 10 years thereafter to boost the immune system against pertussis.

Since infants cannot be vaccinated until they are 2 months old, they are the population that's most vulnerable to pertussis. Infection in this age group can lead to hospitalization and even death in some instances. It is recommended that all adults who will have contact with an infant be vaccinated with the Tdap vaccine to ensure protection. In addition, adults with chronic coughs should stay away from infants and should consider getting tested for pertussis.

All unvaccinated children and adults are at heightened risk for contracting whooping cough, as well. Adults are the most likely population to carry pertussis, so any adults with a long-standing cough should see their doctor about getting tested, both for themselves and their close contacts.

To summarize my points, the populations most at risk for getting whooping cough are:

  1. Infants under the age of 2 months
  2. All unvaccinated children and adults
  3. Preteens, teenagers and adults who have not received Tdap vaccination (Adacel)

To help ward off whooping cough, make sure you and your children are up to date on the pertussis vaccination.

For more information on whooping cough, talk to your physician or visit mountnittany.org.

About the Author

Craig Collison, MD

Craig H. Collison, MD, is a pediatrician with Mount Nittany Physician Group. He treats patients from the Physician Group's Boalsburg and Bellefonte locations. Read more about pediatric care at www.mountnittany.org/pediatrics.

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