If you have a baby or have had a baby, you’ve almost certainly been made aware of the risks of pertussis, or whooping cough, a contagious respiratory illness that is especially dangerous to infants. What you may not know, however, is that pertussis outbreaks have been on the rise in the last few years nationwide. The recent height of pertussis outbreaks came in 2012 when more than 48,000 cases were reported, and while that number decreased in the years immediately afterward, the number of annual cases is still much higher than normal. And while the reasons for the increase in pertussis cases vary, the fact remains that getting vaccinated can help prevent the spread of the illness to babies, teens and adults.
“Pertussis is a year-round disease, but it typically peaks during cold and flu season,” said Mary Kathryn Cockrill from Blount Memorial’s Infection Control team sharing information from the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC). “It begins with normal cold and flu symptoms such as sneezing, runny nose, cough and mild fever, but the cough becomes more frequent and severe and brings with it a ‘whooping’ sound, which is why it gets the name ‘whooping cough.’ It’s highly contagious, especially in its early stages, and spreads when people cough or sneeze close to other people who inhale the droplets. People who have pertussis can experience more than 20 coughing attacks per day, and it can last for weeks or even months, which is why it’s also called the ‘100-day cough,’” Cockrill explained.
Cockrill says immunization is important and may be necessary even if you’ve already been vaccinated in the past. “Although many people are vaccinated against pertussis when they’re children, they can become susceptible to it again as adults because our ability to fight off the illness gradually weakens,” she said. “If you have been vaccinated and you still manage to get pertussis, the odds are good that the infection will be less severe. Getting vaccinated is critical for those who interact with infants, whether they’re parents, grandparents, siblings or caregivers. Babies generally aren’t able to receive the pertussis vaccine until they’re 2 months old, so they’re extremely vulnerable before that time. Even after they get the first vaccine, young children are still susceptible to pertussis until they receive the complete series of vaccinations, which is usually by age seven,” Cockrill said. “If you’re an adult who has had the pertussis vaccine previously, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends getting a pertussis booster if you’re going to be in close contact with infants. Pregnant women also should get one dose of the pertussis booster between weeks 27 and 36 of each pregnancy,” she added.
“If you or your child develops a cold that includes a severe, persistent cough, it may be pertussis, and you should visit your doctor or pediatrician,” Cockrill said. “Early treatment with antibiotics is very important if you have pertussis. If you’ve been in close contact with someone who has the illness, even if you’ve been vaccinated, it’s important to contact your doctor and get treatment,” Cockrill added.