Whooping Cough Facts

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For most of us, whooping cough is a disease of the past. Like polio or measles, you ensure your kids receive the recommended rounds of vaccinations, and you don’t think much about them again. But a recent resurgence in pertussis is raising concerns among many parents.

Called the “100-day cough” in China because the cough can last that long, pertussis also became known as “whooping” cough because of the sound some sufferers make during coughing spells. The highly contagious respiratory disease usually begins with common cold symptoms but develops into uncontrollable fits of violent coughing that often make it hard to breathe and can cause vomiting.

Pertussis is particularly dangerous — and can even be deadly — for babies less than a year old that aren’t yet fully vaccinated. Infants often get sick when their parents, older siblings or other caregivers spread the germs without even realizing they have the disease.

Why is the Whooping Cough Back?

Pertussis was a common childhood disease in the pre-vaccine era, but gradually became controlled after the vaccine became widely used in the 1940s. In recent years, however, incidences of the disease have increased, and there have been several outbreaks, most notably in the peak year 2012, when 48,277 cases were reported, 666 of those in Kentucky, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). There were 28,660 cases reported in 2014, with 268 of those in Kentucky.

Health officials can’t pinpoint an exact reason for the resurgence of pertussis, but the CDC reports that it may be due to a combination of factors:

  • The effects of a newer whooping cough vaccine, known as DTaP, don’t last as long, leaving many preteens susceptible to catching the disease and passing it along to younger children who aren’t fully vaccinated yet.
  • Scientists believe there may have been molecular changes in the bacterium that causes pertussis, preventing the vaccine from being as effective.
  • Some children don’t receive all five doses for full immunity.
  • Fears about vaccine safety have led some parents to choose not to immunize their children.
  • More cases are being diagnosed as testing has improved, and more people are aware of the disease’s resurgence.

Prevention Against Whooping Cough

The best way to protect against whooping cough is to get vaccinated. It’s a good idea to talk to your doctor about your specific situation to be sure you and your family are up to date; however, here are general CDC guidelines for the DTaP vaccine and Tdap booster, which protect against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis:

  • Babies and children: Children should get five doses of DTaP — at ages 2, 4, and 6 months; 15-18 months; and 4-6 years, before starting school. Children ages 7-10 who aren’t up-to-date should get a dose of Tdap.
  • Preteens and teens: Preteens should get the Tdap booster at age 11-12. Teens and young adults who didn’t get a booster of Tdap as a preteen should get the booster.
  • Pregnant women: Expectant mothers should get one dose of Tdap during each pregnancy, preferably at 27-36 weeks. This allows antibodies to be passed to the newborn, protecting before the baby starts getting DTaP vaccines at 2 months old, and protects the mother from spreading pertussis to her baby.
  • Adults: Adults 19 years or older who didn’t get Tdap as a preteen or teen should get a single dose of Tdap. Adults get Tdap in place of one of their regular tetanus boosters — the Td shot that is recommended for adults every 10 years. The dose of Tdap can be given no matter when the last Td shot was received.

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