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The Dangers of Whooping Cough (Pertussis)

Are you at risk?

Whooping Cough Is a Family Affair continued...

Serious illness or complications from whooping cough are almost unheard of in these age groups. Most people never seek medical attention. If they do, doctors may misdiagnose pertussis symptoms as bronchitis or asthma.

Despite the mildness of their illness, however, adults with pertussis are still infectious. An unvaccinated person in the household stands up to a 90% chance of catching pertussis if a family member brings the bacterial infection home.

In the rare instances when adults are diagnosed with pertussis, it’s usually after they develop a cough. But transmission is most likely to occur early in the illness, during the sniffling that’s indistinguishable from a common cold. So by the time of diagnosis, “exposure to others in the home has probably already occurred,” says Keyserling.

Recognizing Pertussis in Your Child and Yourself

It can be extremely difficult to identify whooping cough in adults and vaccinated children because there may be minimal or no cold symptoms at first, and few severe coughing fits -- just an annoying cough that lasts for up to two months. Only 20% to 40% of adolescents and adults will have a “whoop.”

In unvaccinated children, whooping cough may be easier to detect because symptoms are more severe. You should suspect pertussis in your child if a seemingly normal cold develops into a severe cough after cold symptoms subside. Hearing the “whoop” suggests pertussis, but that classic whooping cough sound needn’t be present.

By testing a child’s nasal secretions, a pediatrician can potentially diagnose pertussis within a few days. The chances of correct diagnosis are highest if a child is tested during the first few weeks of cough.

Preventing and Treating Pertussis

Whooping cough poses little danger to children after their first birthdays, and almost no serious risk to older children and adults. But whooping cough does pose a serious danger to children under 1 year old. And even mild whooping cough in older children and adults can cause plenty of lost sleep and days missed from school and work.

For these reasons, the CDC recommends that everyone between the ages of 11 and 64 receive a pertussis booster shot. It's also recommended that pregnant women be vaccinated, preferably between 27 and 36 weeks' gestation. Called Tdap, the booster vaccine provides about 90% renewed immunity against whooping cough. Tdap booster shots also provide boosted immunity against tetanus and diphtheria.

Pertussis is treatable. The antibiotics erythromycin, azithromycin, clarithromycin, and trimethoprim/sulfamethoxazole are all effective against the Bordetella bacteria. However, by the time the cough becomes severe and pertussis typically diagnosed, antibiotic therapy may be too late to relieve the symptoms.

Treatment may not ease symptoms, but it can reduce the chance of spreading pertussis. When one person in a household is known to have whooping cough, experts recommend everyone in the home receive antibiotic treatment as well. Daycare and school contacts may also need to be treated preventively.

Reviewed on May 14, 2012

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