An Ounce of Pertussis Prevention

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You might think of whooping cough as a disease of decades past like polio or smallpox. But whooping cough, or pertussis, is still alive and kicking. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) there were nearly 10,000 cases of the disease reported throughout California in 2010. This is the highest number of cases reported in California in 65 years. Michigan and Ohio have also reported an increase in pertussis outbreaks in the past two years.

Pertussis is a bacterial infection that spreads when you inhale germs from an infected person’s cough or sneeze. It’s a stubborn illness for adults to kick–it is sometimes referred to as the “100 day cough” because coughing fits can linger for months. Early treatment with antibiotics can reduce the severity of symptoms, but there’s an even more important reason to be proactive about preventing and treating pertussis: This highly contagious disease is potentially fatal to infants who are not yet covered by their immunizations and haven’t developed the lung capacity to fight it off. The CDC reports that more than half of infants under twelve months old who get pertussis end up hospitalized.

Fortunately, there’s something you can do to help prevent the spread of pertussis: Ask your doctor about getting a booster shot. (Known as “Tdap,” the booster also includes tetanus and diptheria vaccines.) Although most Americans are immunized for pertussis as infants, immunity can wane after eight to 10 years. If you are in close, regular contact with babies (a parent, caregiver, or teacher), getting the booster is especially important. But even if you don’t have children, your colleagues and friends who do will be grateful if you’re protected.

Know the Symptoms

It’s very difficult to distinguish pertussis from a run-of-the-mill cold virus. Laboratory testing usually takes too long to be useful, and the symptoms are often identical: pertussis begins with typical cold symptoms such as a runny nose, cough, and low-grade fever. The key features of pertussis start to emerge after seven to 10 days, when intense coughing spells begin. These bursts of rapid coughs, known as paroxysms, are especially severe in children, who also tend to exhibit the “whooping” sound that give the disease its common name. This sound is less pronounced in adults, but the coughing is often so severe that it can cause vomiting. If you experience such severe coughing spells, pertussis is a good possibility.

When to See Us

If you have a persistent, severe cough, make an appointment with your primary care physician. He or she will examine you, possibly swab your nose for a culture, and consider a course of antibiotics. Pertussis can get better on its own after several weeks or months, but antibiotics might make you feel better faster and can help control the spread of the disease.

When it comes to whooping cough, the old adage, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” couldn’t be truer. By getting a simple booster shot, you’re not only arming yourself against this stubborn infection, you’re also doing your part to help contain an epidemic.

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The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, an innovative primary care practice with offices in Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Phoenix, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, DC.