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Pertussis: More Than Just a Cough

It’s that time of the year again — the holiday season, yes, but also the months-long winter slog where everyone seems to get sick.

Pertussis, or whooping cough, can be prevented with a vaccine for children and adults.If you’ve had congestion and a cough, you may have dismissed it as a cold. But if your cough lasted for weeks and you can’t remember the last time you got a booster shot, you may have had pertussis, also known as whooping cough.

Whooping Cough Without the Whoop

Your parents or grandparents might have learned to listen for a whooping sound, which happens when a person coughing runs out of air and inhales sharply. But not everyone with pertussis makes the sound, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Other symptoms include:

  • Runny nose
  • Low fever
  • Coughing-induced vomiting
  • Exhaustion after coughing fits

“It’s a pretty common cause for a prolonged cough in the adult population,” says Daniel McCarter, MD.

Why adults? Infants and children routinely get the DTaP vaccine, which protects against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis. Pre-teens and adults can get a booster called Tdap, which lasts about 10 years. Both are required for kids to attend public schools in Virginia.

Most adults have no such requirement, so they often never get a Tdap booster.

Why Bother with a Shot?

One out of five infants diagnosed with pertussis gets pneumonia, according to the CDC, and one in 100 will die. But in teens and adults, pneumonia, hospitalization and death are much rarer. So why keep up with your Tdap booster?

“When adults get pertussis, it can be a pretty dramatic cough, and it can last for six weeks,” McCarter says.

McCarter says adults who catch pertussis miss an average of seven days of work, while adolescents miss five days of school. The coughing also makes sleep difficult.

“You’re talking about losing two weeks of sleep and a week of work because you’re coughing,” he says.

But even worse, unvaccinated adults can spread the disease to unvaccinated infants, who are more likely to suffer serious complications.

“Getting vaccinated is doing the right thing for the community,” McCarter says. “It’s doing the right thing for your family. And hopefully, if enough people do this, we eliminate pertussis because there’s no reservoir in the community.”

Unfortunately, pertussis rates are heading in the other direction.

On the Rise

Virginia Department of Health (VDH) data (PDF) indicate not only are pertussis cases on the rise, many more cases are diagnosed in the Charlottesville area than the state average:

  • In January-October 2011, 271 cases of pertussis were reported to the VDH
  • In January-October 2010, 203 cases were reported to the VDH
  • In 2010, the Thomas Jefferson Health District, which includes Charlottesville, reported 28 cases of pertussis per 100,000 residents, compared to an average rate of 5 cases per 100,000 residents for all of Virginia

Elizabeth Davies, MPH, epidemiologist for the Thomas Jefferson Health District, attributes the higher local numbers to the prevalence of healthcare providers in the area and a readily available supply of pertussis tests, resulting in more diagnoses.

“We do see a lot of large community outbreaks of pertussis,” she says. “We see that in school-age children as well as the adult population.”

Pertussis comes and goes in cycles, much like the flu season, Davies explains. “You’ll have random cases reported, random incidents over a period of a few years,” she says. “Then all of a sudden over the fourth and fifth year, you’ll see this increase.”

The quieter periods, she adds, “are a chance to really ramp up attention to pertussis and get folks immunized.”

Not Sure if You’re Vaccinated?

Check with your healthcare provider to see if you’ve received a Tdap booster.

If not, you can get the vaccine from:

Who needs the vaccine — and when? Check out the CDC’s information on prevention, including a vaccination chart.

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