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more articles by Snedeker, Jeffrey , MD  |  author's bio

Get Vaccinated for Whooping Cough

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 cough?

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 illness spread?

When someone 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 cough treated?

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?

No, unfortunately 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 whooping cough.


Who should get vaccinated?

Everyone should 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.


Adults should 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











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