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Whooping Cough is Preventable

June 12, 2012

Be Aware! Get Vaccinated!

In 2010, California experienced its largest outbreak of whooping cough - also known as pertussis - in over 60 years. The California Department of Public Health reports there were more than 9,000 cases that year, including 10 infant deaths. And the highly contagious bacterial disease continues to circulate throughout the state and the rest of the world.

"We see spikes in the incidence of whooping cough from time to time, including this year," says Dr. Emmanuel Cepe, a family medicine specialist with Washington Township Medical Foundation. "This is a preventable disease, though, because there is a vaccine for whooping cough. I personally opted to get a booster vaccine this winter."

Whooping cough can be a serious illness for people of any age, but it is most dangerous for infants, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). It often starts out with symptoms similar to a cold, with runny nose or congestion and perhaps a mild cough or fever. After 10 to 12 days, however, severe episodes of coughing begin.

In children, the coughing often ends with a "whooping" noise when they try to take a breath. The whoop noise is far less common in infants under 6 months old and in adults. Infants may experience pauses in their breathing, called apnea, which may lead to a short loss of consciousness.

Older children and adults generally recover well from whooping cough, but some complications from whooping cough - especially in infants - can be severe, according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH):

  • Pneumonia
  • Convulsions
  • Seizures
  • Brain damage from lack of oxygen
  • Bleeding in the brain
  • Death

How the Disease Spreads

"Whooping cough spreads easily from person to person," Dr. Cepe says. "When someone who has the disease sneezes or coughs, anyone who is nearby can breathe in the bacteria that spread through the air. So there is a high danger of infected people spreading the disease to other people at work or at home."

The whooping cough vaccine is not recommended for infants under 8 weeks old, and the immunity provided by the vaccine wears off over time. The CDC recommends a series of five shots for children, with the first three shots given at 2, 4 and 6 months of age. The fourth shot is given between 15 to 18 months, and the fifth shot is given between ages 4 and 6 - usually when the child enters school. A booster vaccine is recommended around age 11 or 12, when children enter middle school. Adults should get a booster shot at least every 10 years.

"People need to be sure their vaccinations are up to date," Dr. Cepe emphasizes. "It's especially important for pregnant women and anyone who may come in contact with infants who have not yet been vaccinated - that includes parents, grandparents, siblings, day care providers and healthcare workers. When the people who are around little babies are protected from catching whooping cough, they won't pass it on to the babies."

The pertussis vaccine is usually given in combination with vaccines for tetanus and diphtheria, two other potentially serious diseases.

"In recent years, some parents have chosen not to have their children vaccinated because of misleading and unsubstantiated claims that there is a link between vaccines and autism," Dr. Cepe says. "Parents need to know that those claims have been disproved. The dangers associated with getting whooping cough and other vaccine-preventable diseases are much greater than any common side effects associated with the vaccines. The most common side effect of the combination whooping cough, tetanus and diphtheria vaccine is soreness at the injection site."

Diagnosis and Treatment

Diagnosing whooping cough is not easy in the early stages because the symptoms often are similar to those of other respiratory infections.

"Symptoms of whooping cough can resemble those of asthma and bronchitis, so we do have to eliminate those possibilities when trying to determine if the patient has whooping cough," Dr. Cepe explains. "There is no simple blood test for the pertussis bacteria, but we can test to see if there is a high white blood cell count that indicates an infection. We also can do a throat or nose swab to get a mucus sample that we can check for the presence of the bacteria. A chest X-ray also can help to check for inflammation or fluid in the lungs."

In most cases, whooping cough can be effectively treated with antibiotics if it is diagnosed early enough. Older children and adults usually can be treated at home, but infants may be hospitalized for treatment since the disease is more dangerous for that age group.

"Unfortunately, many people take a 'wait-and-see' approach when it comes to dealing with a cough," says Dr. Cepe. "With whooping cough, it's important to catch it early before it spreads to other people or progresses to pneumonia. If you have a cough that hasn't gone away after two weeks, you definitely should call your doctor. If your infant or child develops the whooping noise associated with the disease or if they have apnea or trouble breathing, seek medical attention right away."

Prevention is the Best Medicine

Washington Township Medical Foundation has three clinics in the Tri-City area that provide immunizations and primary care services to people of all ages. The Warm Springs Clinic, Newark Clinic and Nakamura Clinic in Union City are all open from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday. Walk-ins are welcome. For more information, visit www.mywtmf.com

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