Get Vaccinated for Whooping
by Jeffrey Snedeker, MD
A recent headline
in the Ithaca Journal drew important attention to the rising incidence of
whooping cough in Tompkins County in 2012.
Incidence is up
largely because we have gotten better at diagnosing whooping cough; however,
every few years this illness has a surge and this year we are experiencing a
mini-epidemic. Because whooping cough is highly contagious and can be dangerous
for infants and the elderly, prevention is very important.
What is whooping
Whooping cough is
pertussis, which is a bacterial infection of the upper airway or windpipe. The
bacteria produce a toxin that works directly on the nerve fibers that trigger the
cough reflex. Without early medical intervention, people typically experience a
lingering, uncontrollable cough that can last for two to three months. Sleep is
interrupted, which makes whooping cough a major inconvenience, even for
otherwise healthy adults. Incidentally, the term “whooping” describes not the
cough but the sound people make as they gasp for air between coughs.
How does this
coughs, droplets are sprayed into the air. If the coughing person puts a hand
over his mouth, the germs in those droplets can be conveyed to other people by
subsequently shaking hands or by touching items that other people use.
What are the best
lines of defense against whooping cough?
First of all, get
in the habit of frequent hand washing. Second, if you have a bad cough that persists
for more than a week, go see your doctor so you can be tested for pertussis.
Third, if you know you have been exposed to whooping cough, see your doctor for
prophylactic antibiotics. It is very important to recognize whooping cough and treat
people around the sick person because this illness is so highly contagious.
How is whooping
If you have
whooping cough, or have been exposed to it, your doctor will prescribe an
antibiotic. If you are treated within the first two to three weeks of the
illness, the chances are good that you will get over the cough relatively
quickly. However, if you wait too long to be treated with an antibiotic your
coughing will continue but you will no longer be contagious.
Why is whooping
cough especially dangerous for infants?
Infants cannot be
vaccinated for whooping cough until they are two months old. Babies who get
whooping cough can develop pneumonia and other serious complications, such as
seizures. They are at higher risk for apnea, which in turn can lead to sudden
infant death. In a very young child, whooping cough can be life threatening.
If I had whooping
cough as a child, do I have immunity as an adult?
the immunity we acquire from having had whooping cough is not very good so it’s
easy to get whooping cough more than once. Even the pertussis vaccination is effective
only 85 percent of the time. Nevertheless, we strongly recommend that people
get vaccinated because this is still the best tool we have for preventing
Who should get
talk to his or her primary care doctor and pediatrician about the vaccination.
If you are planning to become pregnant you should be vaccinated before you get
pregnant. Your spouse and everyone who will be caring for the baby should be
vaccinated as well, including grandparents.
protect themselves from catching whooping cough (and from passing it on) by getting
a TdaP booster, which includes vaccine for tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis.
Most adults have not gotten the TdaP booster which is why this is an important
conversation to have with your primary care doctor.
Dr. Snedeker is
board certified in pediatrics and pediatric infectious diseases. He is a member
of the medical staff of Cayuga Medical Center and is in practice with Northeast
Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, where he can be reached at (607) 257-2188