Sneezing, a mild cough and a runny nose…sounds like a benign cold, right? Maybe so, but if severe, violent coughing occurs after 1-2 weeks it is important to rule out whooping cough, named for the characteristic “whoop” sound that may occur during a coughing fit. Whooping cough, or pertussis, is a highly contagious disease that’s especially concerning when it strikes vulnerable populations, especially babies and young children. The U.S. gained the upper hand on pertussis after a vaccine was introduced in the 1940’s; however, just before the turn of the century we began to see a persistent rise in rates of this dangerous disease. Why? Investigators are not completely sure, but the increase in whooping cough cases may be related to the introduction of a new pertussis vaccine in the 1980’s—an overall safer version when compared to the previous vaccine, but perhaps somewhat less effective.
What we do know is this: Complications of pertussis include pneumonia and seizures. About half of infants who get pertussis are hospitalized, and 1-2 in 100 hospitalized infants die. What’s more, symptoms are not always so obvious, especially in babies. The cough may be subtle or not even be present; instead, some infants experience apnea or concerning pauses in breathing. For these reasons the CDC developed new guidelines over the last couple of years to help protect families:
For Pregnant Women
All pregnant women should get one dose of the pertussis booster, or Tdap, during the third trimester of each pregnancy to allow transfer of maternal pertussis antibodies to the newborn. These antibodies will provide protection until the infant is vaccinated with 5 doses of DTaP (pertussis vaccine) at 2, 4 and 6 months, at 15 through 18 months, and again at 4 through 6 years.
For Preteens and Teens
Vaccine protection for pertussis, tetanus, and diphtheria can decrease with time which is why the booster vaccine (Tdap) is given to preteens at age 11 or 12 years. Teens and young adults that didn't receive Tdap as a preteen should get one dose when they visit their health care provider.
Adults 19 years of age and older who didn't get Tdap as a preteen or teen should get one dose of Tdap. Family members, close friends and caregivers that are not up-to-date with their age appropriate vaccine (DTaP or Tdap) should be vaccinated at least two weeks before coming into close contact with a new infant.
Non-vaccinated children are 8 times more likely to get pertussis. Take charge of your family’s collective health by keeping up-to-date with each family member’s vaccine schedule and encouraging others to do the same. Vaccines are the most effective tool available to prevent the spread of pertussis as well as many other diseases. Let’s each do our share to protect each other!