Pertussis, or “whooping cough,” has made an appearance in Des Moines schools recently. Pertussis is a very contagious respiratory illness that is characterized by violent spells of coughing. The illness is commonly called whooping cough due to the “whoop” sound made by sufferers when they inhale after coughing. The cough is so severe that it can lead to vomiting, bruised or broken ribs, and abdominal hernias. In young children, pertussis may also lead to ear infections, pneumonia, seizures, and even death.
Although the symptoms in adults are less severe than in children, it is very important for adults to be vaccinated. This is because pertussis is often spread to young children by adults who have not been vaccinated. Children do not complete the series of pertussis immunizations until they are 4-6 years old, so they are vulnerable for many years. In addition, the efficacy of the vaccine begins to diminish after several years. According to the CDC, children should receive a booster at age 11. Adults should receive at least one booster of pertussis vaccine. Known as “Tdap,” the pertussis vaccine is combined with the tetanus and diphtheria immunizations.
Individuals who may have whooping cough should stay home from school or work and should be seen immediately by their doctor. If the cough has been present for less than 21 days, the doctor may prescribe antibiotics because the person may still be contagious. However, over-the-counter cough suppressants are not very effective for whooping cough and are not recommended.
Written by Carrie Sayre, PharmD Candidate 2012 at the University of Iowa