Healthy Living

Dose of Reality: Whooping Cough Can Be Deadly

Jun. 30, 2014
Whooping cough or pertussis has a funny sounding name, but the illness—and the cough—are anything but. Dr. Geoffrey Weinberg, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at UR Medicine’s Golisano Children’s Hospital explains why.
mom with sick baby
Early symptoms of pertussis may look similar to a common cold but then turn into uncontrollable coughing. In young children, they may have trouble catching their breath, and when they do, a whooping sound marks the sharp intake of breath. Children can turn blue and throw up from the effort, and the cough lasts for weeks. In babies, the coughing doesn’t produce the whooping sound, but it can lead to turning blue, choking and, sometimes, death.
Cases of pertussis are on the rise. California is experiencing an epidemic with 800 cases in just the previous two weeks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). In recent years, we’ve treated several children with pertussis at Golisano Children’s Hospital. Two children, who were too young to be immunized, died.
Why are pertussis cases on the rise? The reason is two-fold:
  1. Delays in or refusal of vaccination. Pertussis epidemics are following communities where immunizations are lacking when parents either delay or refuse the vaccine, putting their children—and other children—at risk.
  2. Need for a Tdap booster. Tdap, the current combination pertussis vaccine that has been used for more than 15 years, produces fewer complications (such as fever and long bouts of crying) than its predecessor, but its protection wanes over time. A booster Tdap is required to maintain protection in teens and adults. Unfortunately, many often miss that booster.

In addition, adults who have partial immunity can catch pertussis but not necessarily realize it’s anything but a common cold. Pertussis is generally not risky for adults, but they can pass it on to babies, for whom it can be very dangerous.

Protect your family by following these CDC recommendations:
  • Children should get five doses of DTaP, one dose at each of the following ages: 2, 4, 6, and 15 through 18 months and at 4 through 6 years.
  • Adolescents 11 through 18 years old should receive a single dose of Tdap, preferably at 11-12 years old.
  • Adults 19 years old and older who did not get Tdap as an adolescent should receive one dose of Tdap.
  • Expectant mothers should receive Tdap during each pregnancy, preferably between 27 and 36 weeks of gestation. This passes some protection on to their babies.
It is particularly important that babies are cared for by vaccinated adults. All caregivers of infants and anyone who is in contact with babies should be up-to-date on their vaccinations, because babies are the most susceptible to serious complications and death.
Geoffrey Weinberg, MD
Geoffrey A. Weinberg, M.D., is a pediatric infectious disease specialist at UR Medicine’s Golisano Children’s Hospital where he treats all areas of pediatric infectious disease with a special emphasis on pediatric HIV/AIDS.