By: Jessica Woodward, M.D.
Pertussis is a highly contagious, upper respitory bacterial disease that causes violent coughing. A deep whooping sound is often heard when the infected person tries to take a breath immediately after or during a coughing bout – hence the name, “whooping cough.”
The disease is airborne. It is spread when an infected person sneezes or coughs, releasing tiny droplets containing bacteria into the air. When other person breathes in the droplets, he or she may become infected as well.
The best way to prevent pertussis is to get vaccinated. The recommended vaccine for children is called DTaP and protects children against three diseases: diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis. For maximum protection, five vaccinations are recommended: at age 2 months, 4 months, 6 months, 15-18 months and 4-6 years. A booster vaccination is recommended at age 11 to 12 years old with boosters continuing throughout adulthood every 10 years.
Symptoms of whooping cough usually last about six weeks to three months and can be separated into three stages. The first symptoms often mimic the common cold, with runny nose, congestion, sneezing, a mild cough and fever. These symptoms can last from several days to two weeks.
During the second stage, symptoms are the most severe. The cold symptoms dissipate and coughing becomes more severe. Coughing episodes may last so long that breathing becomes difficult during the coughing bout. After coughing, a person may vomit and feel extreme fatigue.
In stage three, symptoms persist, but the patient begins to feel better and grow stronger. Coughing may grow louder and may get worse if the patient has a cold or similar illness.
Pertussis is a serious illness for people of any age, but certain populations – such as infants and the elderly – are at increased risk for more severe implications. Young infants are often treated in the hospital so doctors can ensure the baby is recovering from the disease.
If diagnosed during the first stage of the disease, whooping cough can be treated with antibiotics, which can help to decrease the likelihood that the disease will spread to others. Antibiotics may also shorten the duration of the disease. Children with pertussis need to take antibiotics for at least five days before going back to day care or school. If a child does not take antibiotics, wait 21 days after the start of symptoms before sending them back to school.
Home treatment for pertussis involves the following:
• Create a calm, restful environment for the patient.
• Decrease possible coughing triggers such as smoke, dust, sudden noises, lights or changes in temperature.
• Encourage the patient to take frequent small sips of water.
• Encourage the patient to eat small snacks of nutritious foods.
• Use a humidifier, but watch its effects closely. While dry air often makes the coughing worse, sometimes humidity makes the coughing worse as well.
• For children older than 1 year, encourage lying on the side or stomach instead of the back.
• Do not give over-the-counter medication, such as cough suppressants. They have not been shown to help relieve symptoms.
Whooping cough, or pertussis, is currently on the rise in Minnesota and the U.S. Outbreaks like this are common and occur every three to five years. The best way to avoid the disease is to have yourself and your children vaccinated. If you are not up-to-date with your vaccinations, contact your doctor or medical clinic to find out how you can make an appointment to get a booster and protect yourself and your family from pertussis.
Dr. Woodward is a board certified family practice physician at Raiter Clinic.