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How dangerous is whooping cough to babies?


Varsha Dandavate, MD, is an internal medicine physician and infectious disease specialist on staff at Banner Estrella Medical Center.

Question: I'm hearing more about whooping cough lately. What exactly is whooping cough, who is at risk and what are the signs to look for?

Answer: Whooping cough, or pertussis, is a highly contagious bacterial infection of the respiratory tract. As the name suggests, the illness is characterized by unrelenting coughing fits, which are sometimes followed by breaths that make a high-pitched "whoop" sound.

Whooping cough is transmitted through airborne bacteria. Once contracted, signs and symptoms often appear in three to 12 days. Initial symptoms are cold-like and can include a runny nose, congestions, sneezing, dry cough and fever. After a week or so, more severe and uncontrollable coughing fits set in, which may lead to vomiting, extreme fatigue and difficulty breathing.

The pertussis vaccine has been used to boost child immunity and curb outbreaks of the illness, making it critical for children to be immunized. Still, the vaccine is not 100 percent effective and outbreaks do occur. Those who are most at risk are children who have not yet received all vaccines in the series, especially children 6 months or younger. While it's usually thought to be a childhood illness, there has been an increase in whooping-cough cases in adults. This is attributed to the fact that immunity wears off over time. It is recommended that teenagers and adults receive a pertussis booster every 10 years.

Infants may require hospitalization for treatment of whooping cough, but most cases are treated at home with antibiotics and rest. Family members in the household may also be given preventive antibiotics.

Contact your doctor right away if you recognize a severe, hacking cough or other signs of whooping cough in your child or yourself. Not only will you feel better with treatment, but it can prevent further spread of the disease.

Reviewed March 2011

Page Last Modified: 03/02/2011
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