How to Prevent Whooping Cough

People are still getting sick from this preventable disease.

Pertussis, nicknamed “whooping cough” thanks to the whoop-like sound a sufferer makes after a coughing fit, is a highly contagious and potentially serious respiratory infection. While the number of people infected has declined since the widespread use of the pertussis vaccine over 70 years ago, whooping cough still poses a threat to adults and children alike.

We talked to Patti Savrick, MD, a pediatrician at The Woman’s Hospital of Texas in Houston, to learn more about whooping cough and what you need to know to prevent it.

What it is

Your airways have little hairs called cilia that sweep away dirt, dust, pollen and other particles from your lungs so you can breathe. The pertussis bacteria can damage the cilia, preventing them from doing their job, cleaning your airways. This causes intense coughing as your body works to clear the lungs.

“You’ll cough, cough, cough, then breath in real hard, and that releases a whoop sound,” says Dr. Savrick.

The infection spreads easily from person to person through coughing, sneezing and breathing. You are most contagious during the first two weeks.

Who gets it?

Anyone can get whooping cough, but babies under one are at greatest risk, says Savrick.

“During their first year, babies have less-developed immune systems and are more prone to respiratory infections and complications of those respiratory infections than older kids and healthy adults,” says Savrick. They are also more susceptible because they haven’t received all the required vaccine doses for full protection, she says.

How to prevent it

“It’s a pretty preventable disease, if you get yourself vaccinated,” says Savrick. But immunity doesn’t last forever. Booster vaccines are necessary to stay protected.

In certain situations, your doctor may recommend prophylactic antibiotics to prevent infection. “Let’s say you are the father of a newborn, and you think you may have been exposed to pertussis. It may be wise to get preventive antibiotics so that you and the baby don’t get pertussis,” she says.

Vaccine recommendations

Two types of vaccines are available to prevent whooping cough—DTaP and Tdap. They both protect against several infections including diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis.

  • DTaP is recommended for babies at two, four and six months. To maintain protection, revaccination is recommended at 15-18 months and 4-6 years.
  • Tdap is recommended for children and adults 11 years and older. A single dose of Tdap is given only once in a lifetime, then a Td booster is given every 10 years. 

It is recommended that women get vaccinated during each pregnancy, sometime between 27 and 36 weeks’ gestation. As an expectant mother, the vaccine will protect you and your newborn.

Signs and symptoms

Whooping cough goes through a series of stages and can last up to 15 weeks, says Savrick.

“The worst of it starts about 7 to 10 days in and lasts for an average of four to five weeks,” she adds.

It can be difficult to detect, since the symptoms are very similar to that of the common cold or flu. The first stage of whooping cough can involve a low fever, mild cough, runny nose and trouble breathing. In this beginning stage, the infection is very contagious. Frequent coughing followed by the “whooping” sound develops as the infection progresses along with fatigue. Adults don’t always make the whoop-like sound. They may just have a persistent cough.

During the recovery stage, you may have occasional or frequent coughing spells. And since your immune system is weaker, you’re susceptible to other respiratory infections.

If you have any of the symptoms mentioned, see your doctor so they can test your blood and mucus for the pertussis infection.

Treatment and recovery

Whooping cough is treated with antibiotics, such as azithromycin and erythromycin.

“You definitely want to be treated in the first couple of weeks. If you get past the third week, the antibiotic treatment is not very effective,” says Savrick.

Whooping cough can be fatal for babies, if it’s left untreated or progresses quickly. Babies have tiny airways that can swell easily, blocking airflow. But with treatment, most babies will recover. About half of infants with whooping cough have to be hospitalized. By staying up-to-date with vaccinations, you are less likely to get whooping cough and the dreaded “100 day cough” that comes with it.

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