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Whooping Cough: What You Need to Know

An Interview With CDC Infectious Disease Expert Tom Clark

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Over-the-counter cough medicines are not recommended and don't really help. The prescription medicines that are really effective for cough are pretty strong medicines, so they're generally avoided in young children and probably not effective in pertussis specifically.

It's commonly recommended to minimize the things that can trigger the cough. A humidifier helps. Breathing moist air will help. With younger kids, try to keep them calm and not agitated or running around.

Infants or people with severe disease sometimes require ... hospitalization, sometimes in intensive care. It can be serious enough to require intubation and ventilation -- in which a breathing tube is inserted into the throat, both to protect the airways and to assist with breathing until they can recover from the infection.

What health problems can whooping cough cause in infants?

Concerning things include pneumonias. Because the cough is so severe, blood vessels can break because of the pressure generated from coughing. That causes bleeding inside the brain, which can be very serious. In infants [whooping cough] can be life threatening.

How can I prevent my baby from getting whooping cough?

Whooping cough is commonly thought of as sort of an old-time disease of childhood that went away with vaccination, but it never really went away. So it's important that we maintain high vaccination coverage in kids. It's also a disease that adolescents and adults can get.

The best way to prevent it is to get vaccinated. For kids, vaccinations start at 2 months. They get the pertussis vaccination with diphtheria and tetanus. And then doses at 4 months and 6 months. Then there's a booster at 15 to 18 months, and another booster at 4 to 6 years before they start school.

The Tdap vaccine is recommended for all adolescents, preferably at age 11 or 12 during a preventive care visit with their doctor. But anyone who hasn't gotten it at age 11 or 12 can get a dose.

If adults have never had [the vaccine], they should definitely get it, and they can get it at any time. They don't have to wait until they're due for their tetanus vaccine.

For infants who are too young to be vaccinated and who are at highest risk for disease and severe complications, we recommend that everybody who is in the house or caring for the baby get vaccinated to help protect the baby.

How do outbreaks of whooping cough start?

Things that can promote outbreaks or promote the spread of disease include low vaccination coverage. Protection from the vaccine doesn't last forever. Immunity wanes over time. That's why you commonly see outbreaks in teenagers.

The reason that the adolescent and adult Tdap booster was developed was really the increase in disease observed in teenagers and young adults as a result of waning immunity.

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