Pertussis, more commonly known as whooping cough, is a respiratory illness that can start like a regular cold, but for many people, can become worse and last longer than a regular cold. People with pertussis often have uncontrollable, violent coughing which can make it hard to breathe. After fits of many coughs, a person usually needs to take deep breaths, which can make the "whooping" sound.
Pertussis is easily spread. It is caused by a type of bacteria called Bordetella pertussis and can affect anyone, but is worse in infants and young children. It can even be deadly, especially in babies less than six months of age.
Vaccines for children have been around for a long time and have decreased pertussis in most communities. However, there have been some places where a lot of teens and adults have been getting pertussis, and sometimes spreading it to younger children. There has been a recent rise in the number of pertussis cases in California. In 2010, 8,383 cases of pertussis (including 10 infant deaths) were reported, the most since 1947. Because Arizona is next to California, there could be a rise in pertussis cases in our own state since there are a lot of people traveling between California and Arizona.
We have recently had two babies on the reservation with pertussis who had to be hospitalized. This is why we want you to know about pertussis and what you can do to prevent the spread of this disease.
How pertussis spreads
Pertussis is easily spread from person to person. People with pertussis usually spread the disease by coughing or sneezing while in close contact with others. Many infants get pertussis from older siblings, parents or caregivers who might not even know they have the disease.
Can I get pertussis even if I am vaccinated against it?
Pertussis vaccines do a great job in protecting you from disease but no vaccine is 100 percent effective. If pertussis is going around, there is a chance that even someone that had the vaccine can catch this disease. If you have been vaccinated, the infection is usually not as bad. If you or your child develops a cold that includes a severe cough or a cough that lasts for a long time, it may be pertussis. The best way to know is to contact your doctor.
What kind of symptoms does a person with pertussis have?
Pertussis can cause serious illness in infants, children and adults. Symptoms of pertussis usually are seen within 7-10 days after being exposed to the disease, but sometimes not for as long as six weeks.
Pertussis is most dangerous for babies. More than half of infants younger than one year of age who get the disease must spend some time in the hospital. Infants may or may not have a cough. Infants may have a symptom known as "apnea." Apnea is when the child stops breathing or seems to be unable to catch their breath.
Early symptoms can last for 1 to 2 weeks and usually include a runny nose, low-grade fever, mild, occasional cough and apnea (infants).
Because pertussis at first appears to be nothing more than the common cold, people do not think they have it until the more severe symptoms appear. Infected people are most likely to spread the disease to someone else in the first two weeks after the cough begins.
After 1-2 weeks, other symptoms of pertussis appear and include fits of many, rapid coughs followed by a high-pitched "whoop," vomiting due to coughing spells and becoming very tired after coughing fits, which can go on for up to 10 weeks or more.
Although you are often exhausted after a coughing fit, you usually appear fairly well in-between. Coughing fits usually become more common and severe as the illness continues, and can happen more often at night. The illness can be less severe and the "whoop" sound may not be seen in people who have been vaccinated.
Is pertussis dangerous?
Pertussis can cause serious and sometimes life-threatening problems in infants and young children, especially those who are not fully vaccinated.
In infants younger than one year of age, more than half must be hospitalized. The younger the infant, the more likely treatment in the hospital will be needed. Infants can get pneumonia, convulsions, apnea, encephalopathy (disease of the brain) or can even die.
Can pertussis be treated?
Yes. There are antibiotics that can be given that decrease the spread of the germs to others, and if given early, may help with a decrease in symptoms of cough and pneumonia. If a household family member has pertussis, antibiotics are given to the rest of the family to keep them from getting sick and spreading the illness to others.
What do I do if I think I have pertussis?
If you think you have pertussis, please see your doctor. You should ask for a mask to cover your nose and mouth when you cough, and tell the screening personnel you are concerned you may have pertussis. If you think you have pertussis, and are unable to come to the clinic right away, please stay home from school or work until you get evaluated.
How can I protect myself from getting pertussis?
The best way to prevent pertussis is to get vaccinated. Parents can also help protect infants by keeping them away as much as possible from anyone who has cold symptoms or is coughing.
The vaccine to protect against pertussis is available for infants, children, teens and adults. Today, we start giving pertussis vaccines to children at six weeks of age, through six years. Vaccine protection for pertussis, tetanus and diphtheria fades with time so now there are booster shots for pre-teens, teens and adults that contain protection against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis. Getting vaccinated is especially important for parents, families, and caregivers of new infants. You can receive a shot even if you have had a tetanus booster shot in the recent past.
TCRHCC providers will be offering booster shots for older children and adults when you are seen in clinic, but if you have a newborn at home, ask a health care provider to check your immunization records to see if you need a booster now.
We appreciate everyone's help in preventing the spread of this severe illness in our communities.