What Is Whooping Cough?

Find out why this disease is making a comeback and how you can prevent it.

Rob Lamberts, MD,
July 11, 2012
Episode #057

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How Is Whooping Cough Diagnosed?

Pertussis is usually diagnosed by swabbing the nasal passages and looking for the bacteria using special antibodies. The hard part about making the diagnosis, however, is suspecting the illness in the first place. Most physicians, myself included, were trained in an era where we thought of pertussis as a defeated foe. But the truth is that the infection has been making a comeback for quite a while, steadily increasing over the past 20 years. One study showed that out of 150 adults with cough lasting over 2 weeks, 12 percent were infected with pertussis.

How Is Whooping Cough Treated?

The good news is that the infection is quite easy to treat once it has been diagnosed. It responds quite well to common antibiotics, with a decrease in symptoms and a reduction in contagiousness that is fairly rapid.

How Can You Prevent Whooping Cough?

But the heart of the issue with pertussis is that it can be prevented with a vaccine. But despite the vaccine, the disease has recently been making its comeback. First, the vaccine wears off after a while, and so people become susceptible to it again. For a long time, the last immunization came at age 5. That was because previously immunized adults get a milder disease. The problem is not in adults getting the infection, though; the main problem is with those adults transmitting the disease to under-immunized infants.

[[AdMiddle]Now I know all of you may be expecting me to rant a little about the people who are refusing vaccinations for their kids. Even though these people do put their children at risk of getting and spreading the disease, the real problem occurs in children under 6 months--even those who have gotten vaccinated. Until the first three pertussis immunizations are given, a child is still susceptible to infection--an infection that could kill them. In my practice, I recently saw an infant under 2 months of age who got the infection before the first immunization could be given. 

So as I just mentioned, the real problem comes from infected adults passing it on to infants, so if I am going to rant, it’s going to be to urge any adults--especially those who spend significant time around young children-- to get immunized against pertussis. If people would get vaccinated, there would be less infections, and with less infections, there would be less infants dying from this preventable disease.

So my final words are two Quick and Dirty Tips for whooping cough:

Tip 1: Get your children vaccinated with as quickly as possible. All children should get their third pertussis immunization at the 6 month visit.

Tip 2: All adults who spend any significant time around small children should get vaccinated as well.

If you have topics that you want me to cover, send them to housecalldoctor@quickanddirtytips.com, or you can submit them to me on twitter (@housecalldoc) or my Facebook page.

Let me once again remind you that this podcast is for informational purposes only. My goal is to add to your medical knowledge and translate some of the weird medical stuff you hear, so when you do go to your doctor, your visits will be more fruitful. I don’t intend to replace your doctor; he or she is the one you should always consult about your own medical condition.

Catch you next time! Stay Healthy!


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