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February 5, 2013 > Whooping Cough Poses a Serious Threat to Babies and Young Children

Whooping Cough Poses a Serious Threat to Babies and Young Children

Pertussis Vaccination Can Prevent the Spread

You may be hearing a lot about the flu right now, but another contagious respiratory disease is posing a serious threat to babies and young children. Pertussis, also known as whooping cough, is making the rounds these days.

"Whooping cough tends to occur in cycles, peaking every three to five years," said Dr. Swetha Kowsik, a local pediatrician who is a member of the Washington Hospital medical staff. "More than 9,000 cases were reported in California in 2010, the highest number in 60 years. When we look at the rest of the country, 2012 had one of the worst whooping cough outbreaks in decades. Because parts of California have a high vaccine refusal rate, we are concerned that we will again see the number of cases increase in this state because of how easily pertussis can spread."

Pertussis is a highly contagious respiratory disease caused by Bordatella pertussis bacteria. It is also known as whooping cough because it can cause violent, uncontrolled coughing spells, making it hard to breathe. After a coughing spell, the infected person often needs to take a deep breath, which results in a whooping sound, more common in children than adults. Whooping cough can even be fatal, particularly for infants and babies.

Three Stages

The symptoms occur in three stages, Dr. Kowsik explained. The first stage lasts about one to two weeks and is similar to a common cold, with a runny nose, sneezing, mild fever, and slight cough. The second stage lasts longer - about two to six weeks - and is when the actual whooping sound develops. The third stage can last for four to 21 days and consists of gradual recovery and less coughing.
Whooping cough is spread through droplets that enter the air when infected people cough or sneeze. These droplets can also end up on surfaces like doorknobs and computer keyboards, and people can become infected by touching those surfaces and then touching their eyes, nose, or mouth.

Fortunately, whooping cough can be prevented with a vaccine. According to Dr. Kowsik, babies receive their first dose of pertussis vaccine at age 2 months as part of a combined vaccine called Dtap, which covers diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis. The other doses are given at 4 months, 6 months, 15 months and 4 years. A booster vaccine is given at the 11-year doctor visit as part of the Tdap vaccine, she added.

"Extensive research has been conducted to ensure that the vaccine is safe," Dr. Kowsik said. "The vaccination can be effective in preventing disease when it is given according to the defined schedule along with the booster. Anyone who has not had a booster shot in the last 10 years should get one because immunity wears off over time. Adults who have not had their booster can infect babies who haven't received all of their vaccinations yet. That's why it's so important to get one."

Push to Revaccinate

After the whooping cough epidemic hit California in 2010, causing 10 infant deaths, there was a push to revaccinate teens and adults to prevent the spread of the disease.

"I have seen several infants hospitalized and on oxygen after they were exposed to pertussis from an older relative who had not gotten their booster shot," she added. "Pertussis can often be a mild illness in adults, but result in hospitalization in children."

Anyone who does get sick with whooping cough should stay away from others to avoid spreading the disease. Whooping cough can be treated with antibiotics, and early diagnosis and treatment can help to lessen the severity of the disease, according to Dr. Kowsik

"Many adults will be able to recover with supportive care and a course of antibiotics," she added. "However, infants may need to be hospitalized for oxygen and intravenous fluids. Many infants may also develop super infections or complications such as pneumonia, necessitating further courses of antibiotics."
Pertussis vaccinations are available at Washington Urgent Care. The clinic is open seven days a week from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. and no appointment is needed.

For more information about whooping cough, visit the California Public Health Department's website at To find out how to get a pertussis vaccination, call Washington Hospital's Health Connection hotline at (800) 963-7070. To learn about upcoming Washington Hospital classes and seminars that can help you stay healthy, visit

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