Q. My daughter was exposed to whooping cough at school. What is the whooping cough, and how would I know if my child has it? What can be done to prevent it?
A. The whooping cough, or pertussis, is a respiratory infection caused by the bacteria Bordetella pertussis. When a person gets infected, she will go through two phases of illness.
The first phase has symptoms indistinguishable from a common cold: runny nose, sneezing, mild cough and low-grade fever. After 1-2 weeks, the dry irritating cough evolves into cough spells. This is the second phase.
Pertussis is more dangerous for infants than older children. During coughing spells, infants may turn red or stop breathing. The illness gets its name from a whooping sound that is sometimes heard at the end of a coughing spell.
Pertussis is highly contagious and spreads from person to person. Prior to the vaccine, 5,000 to 10,000 people died in the United States per year. Pertussis is now responsible for about 30 deaths a year in the U.S. In 2004, however, there was a spike, with 25,000 cases.
The best way to protect against pertussis is vaccination. Infants receive their primary vaccinations series at 2, 4 and 6 months. Infants younger than 6 months are at the highest risk for being hospitalized with pertussis.
Children between the ages of 11 and 18 are at an increased risk of contracting pertussis because their immunity may have faded against the disease. In this age group, the children typically have milder symptoms, but they can spread the disease to infants who come into contact with them. For these reasons, it is recommended (and required by CMS schools) that children receive a booster vaccine (TdaP) at 11 years of age.