Whooping cough (pertussis) update | Dr. Petter

Pertussis, or "whooping cough," is a highly contagious bacterial infection affecting the respiratory system.

A person can contract this organism by simply inhaling the respiratory droplets from a contaminated individual who has just coughed or sneezed.

In the state of Washington, there have been 36 reported cases of pertussis (week ending Jan. 28), compared to 16 cases this time last year.

Since the mid-1970s, this illness has steadily reemerged. Three major reasons can account for this increasing incidence. First, vaccine immunity levels of adults and teens can fade over time. Second, children under 6 months of age are especially vulnerable to contracting this illness because they are not fully immune until they receive at least three petussis vaccines (DTaP = diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis). Third, parents have the legal right to refuse to vaccinate their children.

Once exposed to this bacteria, symptoms develop within 3 to 12 days. Initially, they might mimic that of the common cold. Symptoms might consist of a runny nose, mild fever, nasal or sinus congestion, dry cough, watery or blood-shot eyes and sneezing. However, over the next one to two weeks, symptoms become more severe. Extreme fatigue might be coupled with a red or bluish discoloration of the face. A thick phlegm production is common, as is vomiting. The characteristic cough soon ensues; a "whooping" sound or hacking cough.

Complications from this illness can be serious. Examples include pneumonia, seizures, inability to breathe and even brain damage.

If you or a family member develops symptoms that might suggest pertussis, see your doctor. Infants typically need to be hospitalized. Older children and adults can be treated as out-patients at home, receiving treatment with a prescription antibiotic and cough syrups. Household members are commonly treated to help prevent the infection from spreading.

Prevention is key to avoiding this illness. Focus on the basics: cover your mouth when you cough or sneeze; wash your hands frequently and thoroughly throughout the day; stay home when you are sick.

Most important, get vaccinated. Parents need to follow national childhood immunization guidelines and vaccinate their children, not only to protect their children, but those with whom they come in contact.

A booster shot (Tdap = tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis) needs to be given to adolescents (age 11 or 12), as their immunity to pertussis tends to decline around this age. Adult immunity levels also can decrease over time, so have your doctor update your tetanus booster every 10 years, and be sure it also includes pertussis (Tdap).

Dr. Linda Petter, of Auburn, is a weekly feature on KOMO TV/News Radio (1000 AM and 97.7 FM) every Saturday, Sunday and weekday. She trained at the Mayo Clinic and the University of Illinois, Carle Hospital. Dr. Petter is chief of the Department of Family Practice at St. Francis Hospital. She is a consumer healthcare advocate, and her books, "Healthcare On a Budget" and "Common Medical Sense" are available on Please visit her website,

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