Family Life

Pertussis can be a big whoop

I’ve read that there have been a lot of outbreaks of whooping cough around the country this year. My child has had a severe cough as well for the past few days — could it possibly be whooping cough? Can children still contract the disease?

To start, you need to confirm whether your child has been immunized against pertussis (whooping cough). Childhood immunizations have been largely responsible for severely curtailing outbreaks of many diseases, including pertussis, since the diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis vaccine (DTP) is often part of a regular pediatric immunization schedule. However, even if your child has been immunized, if your child displays the symptoms of pertussis, you should seek treatment right away.

Caused by bacteria called bordetella pertussis, whooping cough is an inflammation of the respiratory tract. The disease is highly contagious, and commonly affects young children between 1 and 10 years old. Pertussis can also affect older children or teens who may not have been immunized, as well as adults whose childhood immunizations have worn off.

At first, the symptoms of whooping cough are fairly mild, and can include a runny nose, congestion, low fever, and light coughing. Those symptoms may eventually become severe enough to cause spasms of coughing — often four or five hard, repeated coughs — followed by a “whooping” sound that results from the infected child gasping for air. Left untreated, the nasal and respiratory tract congestion can lead to pneumonia.

During its early stages, pertussis can be treated with antibiotics, which can sometimes prevent the disease from worsening. However, once pertussis progresses to include severe coughing spasms, antibiotics may no longer be effective. Physicians sometimes recommend hospitalization for children with pertussis, especially for infants under 6 months of age. With proper care, regular hydration and suction to clear blocked nasal passages, the coughing spasms should eventually subside.

Whooping cough can usually be prevented with a series of regular immunizations, so whether or not your child has already had whooping cough, it is important to make sure he gets immunized. Those who have had pertussis develop a natural immunity to the disease. However, the duration of that immunity varies from person to person, so routine vaccinations against whooping cough are recommended.

Make sure you discuss any questions you have about pertussis treatment or the pertussis vaccine with your child’s pediatrician. Proper caution will go a long way in ensuring that pertussis is no big whoop.

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