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Children's Health

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Whooping Cough: What You Need to Know

An Interview With CDC Infectious Disease Expert Tom Clark


If antibiotics are recommended, they should take all the doses and finish the recommended course. It's important for a couple of reasons. If the child's doctor feels that antibiotics are necessary, it's important to take the doses on time to develop and maintain the appropriate antibiotic levels in the blood to clear the infection. And missing a dose or stopping early can sometimes result in a relapse. It's also important in general, because one of the things that promotes antibiotic resistance in bacteria is stopping and starting [antibiotics].

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.

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