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Whooping Cough Rise: What You Need to Know

Jun 20, 2014
By Malcolm Thaler
Mother consoling her crying baby

Pertussis, commonly referred to as “whooping cough,” is on the rise. Although its resurgence happens every few years, recent incarnations have been particularly aggressive. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there was a 15 percent increase in cases between 2013 and 2014, bringing the total number to almost 33,000.

What is pertussis?

Pertussis is a highly contagious respiratory illness caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis. Virtually 100 percent of unvaccinated people who come in contact with an infected person will get the infection as well, although only about one-third of them will experience the full-blown clinical syndrome.

Know the Symptoms

It begins with symptoms that resemble the common cold. After a few days, it morphs into a phase characterized by severe, uncontrollable coughing spells sometimes followed by a whooping sound, which can last for weeks.

The Causes Behind the Epidemic

Several factors may account for this sudden rise. Many parents and children are not getting vaccinated. Additionally, the current pertussis vaccine, which is given as part of the Tdap (tetanus/diphtheria/pertussis) vaccine, has a lower efficacy and shorter duration of action than vaccines used in the past.

Who Should Get Vaccinated

Anyone due for a Tdap should receive a routine vaccination that follows standard guidelines–this includes infants. Anyone in close contact with infants should consider getting the vaccine as well. Additional vaccination is now recommended for all women in their third trimester of pregnancy, regardless of when they had their last vaccine.

What You Should Do If You Think You Have Pertussis

If you think you might have pertussis, see your health care provider. You can be tested–usually with a nose or throat swab–to see if you have the disease.

The Treatment for Pertussis

Your provider will prescribe antibiotics that will clear the bacteria. If diagnosed within the first few days, treatment with antibiotics will shorten the duration of the illness, but because most patients initially think they only have a cold, diagnosis and treatment rarely happen in that window. Antibiotic treatment will, however, prevent the spread of the illness to others.

Could It Be Something Else?

Other respiratory illnesses can mimic pertussis, such as viral and other bacterial infections, asthma, and gastroesophageal reflux. Some ways to distinguish pertussis in adults include a history of exposure to someone else with pertussis, vomiting during or after coughing, and coughing that awakens the patient from sleep.

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Malcolm Thaler

Malcolm enjoys being on the front lines of patient care, managing diagnostic and therapeutic challenges with a compassionate, integrative approach that stresses close doctor-patient collaboration. He is the author and chief editor of several best-selling medical textbooks and online resources, and has extensive expertise in managing a wide range of issues including the prevention and treatment of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and sports injuries. Malcolm graduated magna cum laude from Amherst College, received his MD from Duke University, and completed his residency in Internal Medicine at Harvard's New England Deaconess Hospital and Temple University Hospital. He joined One Medical from his national award-winning Internal Medicine practice in Pennsylvania and was an attending physician at The Bryn Mawr Hospital since 1986. He is certified through the American Board of Internal Medicine. Malcolm is a One Medical Group provider and sees patients in our New York offices.

The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, a national, modern primary care practice pairing 24/7 virtual care services with inviting and convenient in-person care at over 100 locations across the U.S. One Medical is on a mission to transform health care for all through a human-centered, technology-powered approach to caring for people at every stage of life.

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