Diagnosed cases of pertussis infection, more commonly known as whooping cough, have re-emerged over the past few years, spreading quickly through schools and communities.
Whooping cough is a highly contagious respiratory tract infection that usually affects young children but can also impact teenagers and adults. The infection is caused by the bacteria, Bordetella pertussis and is transmitted person-to-person when an infected individual coughs or sneezes and someone nearby breathes in the contaminated droplets.
The incubation period from exposure to when symptoms appear can be a week to 10 days. Pertussis can be life-threatening, particularly in infants and toddlers.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports there were 48,277 cases of pertussis in the United States in 2012 and 105 cases in Maryland, but stressed that many cases go either undiagnosed or unreported.
Symptoms of Whooping Cough
A pertussis infection may first look like a cold or the flu but quickly gets worse after the first two weeks. Whooping cough has three very distinct stages, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- Stage 1 is the catarrhal stage which lasts between one and two weeks. Stage 1 symptoms include a runny nose, low-grade fever, and an occasional cough. During this time, the person is highly contagious.
- Stage 2 is the paroxysmal stage which can last as long as 10 weeks. It is characterized by prolonged coughing attacks followed by a high-pitched “whoop” sound, vomiting, extreme fatigue caused by coughing, mucus in the airways
- Stage 3 is the convalescent stage where the person is still susceptible to other respiratory infections. Coughing is not as severe but the attacks could still occur.
Other symptoms can include lack of sleep, urinary incontinence, and weight loss.
Pertussis is diagnosed when your health care provider swabs the nose or throat, or perhaps the mucus from the respiratory airways and sends it to the lab to find out whether the Bordetella pertussis bacteria is present.
Whooping Cough Treatment and Complications
Once a diagnosis is made, then a course of antibiotics such as azithromycin, clarithromycin, or erythromycin may be prescribed to fight the infection.
As a precaution, a health provider may recommend a preventative course of antibiotics for everyone in the household to prevent further transmission of the disease. Over-the-counter cough medications seldom work with whooping cough and typically are discouraged.
While teenagers and adults may recover, the violent coughing attacks could cause bruised or fractured ribs or abdominal hernias. In infants and toddlers, however, the complications can be much more severe – particularly if they are under six months old. Those complications include pneumonia, dehydration, seizures or slowed breathing.
Preventing Whooping Cough
Like other contagious infections, the best way to keep from contracting a pertussis infection is to practice good hygiene.
- Make sure you cover your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze
- Throw away used tissues.
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds – or the time it takes to sing the Happy Birthday song.
- Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer if you can’t get to soap and water.
The CDC recommends pertussis vaccination for babies, children, preteens, teenagers and adults as a way to prevent or lessen the impact of the infection. Talk to your health care provider about the best way to protect your family from pertussis.
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Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
American Lung Association