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Prevention is the best medicine. A familiar saying and while true, ignoring the facts or not knowing them can result in suffering from and spreading disease. Recently, whooping cough, also known as pertussis, has found its way back into our communities and into the news. It affects the lungs and a person’s ability to breathe. Its strange name comes from the sound made while taking breaths between the violent coughing fits in those who suffer from it.

The virus, caused by the bacteria Bordetella pertussis, used to be deadly until a vaccine (or shot) was discovered in the early 1900’s. Highly contagious, the virus is spread through mucus and breathing in tiny droplets that are released into the air when someone who is infected coughs or sneezes. While they may be invisible, the germs are there. Of course, this is how the cold and flu spreads, too, which is why people are encouraged to cover their mouths when they cough or sneeze.

Whooping cough can be avoided by getting the DTap vaccine, which is part of the normal vaccine schedule. Kids are usually given five doses of the shot — with the first three given a baby. Another is given when a kid is a toddler and the fifth dose is given between ages 4 to 6. And now, doctors want to give another shot (called the Tdap) when a child is around 11 or 12 to make sure he or she is still protected.

Adults partially protected by the vaccine may still become infected with B. pertussis but experience milder symptoms. As a result, it’s difficult to know if it’s a common upper respiratory infection or whooping cough.
Whooping cough symptoms are similar to a cold, but get worse over time. They include:

  • Sneezing
  • Running nose
  • Low fever (rises at night)
  • Fatigue
  • Cough (starts mild and gets worse)

During the cough, a person’s face can turn red and, if it’s really bad, the lips or skin may turn purple or blue and the coughing can be so bad that the person throws up. Attacks are more frequent at night and children and young infants can become very ill and distressed. In between these coughing attacks, a patient appears normal.

Most of the time, whooping cough symptoms— especially the cough — can last for more than 2 months. But sometimes, kids are better within 3 to 6 weeks. Early treatment is very important, especially for infants and pregnant women, who remain the most vulnerable and at risk.
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), complications can be deadly – especially in babies and young children. The younger the child, the likelier he or she will require a hospital stay to get better. If that happens, so can the following:

  • 1 out of 4 (23%) get pneumonia (lung infection)
  • 1 out of 100 (1.1%) will have convulsions (violent, uncontrolled shaking)
  • 3 out of 5 (61%) will have apnea (slowed or stopped breathing)
  • 1 out of 300 (0.3%) will have encephalopathy (disease of the brain)
  • 1 out of 100 (1%) will die

In teens and adults, complications are less serious and usually are caused by the cough itself. If vaccinated, symptoms are less serious and recovery time is better. While vaccines are the best defense, they aren’t perfect. They can experience any of the following, however:

  • Weight loss in 1 out of 3 (33%) adults
  • Loss of bladder control in 1 out of 3 (28%) adults
  • Passing out in 3 out of 50 (6%) adults
  • Rib fractures from severe coughing in 1 out of 25 (4%) adults

If you think you’ve been exposed to the virus or show any of the symptoms, it’s important to act fast, because it increases your chance of a successful recovery. Screening for this virus can be done in several ways, such as:

  • Physical examination
  • Laboratory test – take a sample of mucus (with a swab or syringe filled with saline) from the back of the throat through the nose
  • Blood test

Treatment often requires antibiotics and isolation for those infected with whooping cough. Recovery time can vary from person to person and ranges from two to four weeks. Age, health status, pregnant women and anyone with complications from other diseases or illness should consult with their doctor about the best form of prevention and treatment.

In general, DTaP vaccines are 80-90% effective. Among kids who get all 5 doses of DTaP on schedule, the success rate is high following the 5th dose. At least 9 out of 10 kids are fully protected. Keeping up to date with your vaccines is the best way to stay healthy and avoid illness in general.

Talk to your doctor or visit pinnaclehealth.org/phmg if you have questions or concerns.

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Fast Facts*

  • Coughing fits due to whooping cough (pertussis) can last up to 10 weeks or more; this disease is sometimes known as the “100-day cough.”
  • Vaccinated children and adults can become infected with and spread pertussis; however, the disease is typically much less serious in vaccinated people.
  • Pertussis is generally treated with antibiotics, which are used to control the symptoms and to prevent infected people from spreading the disease.
  • Worldwide, there are an estimated 16 million cases of pertussis and about 195,000 deaths per year.
  • In 2012, the most recent peak year, 48,277 cases of pertussis were reported in the United States, but many more go undiagnosed and unreported. This is the largest number of cases reported in the United States since 1955 when 62,786 cases were reported.

*Resource: cdc.gov

About UPMC Harrisburg

UPMC Harrisburg is a nationally recognized leader in providing high-quality, patient-centered health care services in south central PA. and surrounding rural communities. UPMC Harrisburg includes seven acute care hospitals and over 160 outpatient clinics and ancillary facilities serving Dauphin, Cumberland, Perry, York, Lancaster, Lebanon, Juniata, Franklin, Adams, and parts of Snyder counties. These locations care for more than 1.2 million area residents yearly, providing life-saving emergency care, essential primary care, and leading-edge diagnostic services. Its cardiovascular program is nationally recognized for its innovation and quality. It also leads the region with its cancer, neurology, transplant, obstetrics-gynecology, maternity care, and orthopaedic programs.

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