Outbreaks of the highly contagious disease pertussis, or whooping cough, occur every few years and should be taken seriously. The Illinois Department of Public Health reports a recent increase in cases, especially in young children and adolescents. The infection can cause serious illness in people of all ages, but can be particularly life-threatening in infants.
Morris Hospital Infectious Disease Specialist Dr. John Bolden said pertussis affects the cilia in the upper respiratory tract and causes violent, uncontrollable coughing. The coughing spasms can be lengthy, followed by deep gulps of air. It’s the swollen respiratory passages that make the deep inhalations sound like a high-pitched whoop that give the disease its name.
The coughing is so severe that it can break ribs or cause a person to pass out.
“Pertussis can also cause apnea,” Dr. Bolden said, “which is a big pause in breathing. When that happens, you don’t get enough oxygen, which is why many people with pertussis end up on a ventilator. It’s most serious for babies, who may be placed on ECMO, which is extracorporeal membrane oxygenation.”
Pertussis is caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis, which spreads easily from person to person when it becomes airborne in droplets from coughs and sneezes. It can even be picked up just by spending time in the breathing space of a person who is infected.
“It can spread pretty quickly,” Dr. Bolden said.
The early symptoms of pertussis are the same as the common cold – a runny nose, perhaps with a mild cough, low fever and malaise. The characteristic whooping sound typically doesn’t occur until several days into the disease and several days of being contagious. Complications of pertussis can include pneumonia, convulsions and death.
The best way to avoid becoming infected is vaccination, according to Dr. Bolden, especially for children and pregnant women.
Children begin a series of immunizations beginning at age two months with the DTaP shot, a combination vaccine that includes protection for diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis.
Immunizing pregnant women for pertussis is done early in the third trimester. This not only helps the mother avoid the disease, but the antibodies she makes help protect the baby until it can receive immunization.
In addition to children and pregnant women, Dr. Bolden recommends adults receive a booster vaccine, especially if they are around small children, pregnant women and those who have weakened immune systems.
“It’s important to know that the vaccine is not 100 percent effective, and the effectiveness can decrease with time,” he said.
Dr. Bolden recommends making sure vaccines are up to date and knowing the symptoms, especially for those who have been exposed to pertussis.
“If you develop cold-like symptoms after being around someone who gets diagnosed with pertussis, you should see your primary care physician as soon as possible,” he advised. For those who are not aware that they have been exposed, Dr. Bolden recommends a visit to the doctor if cold-like symptoms do not get better within one week.
Dr. Bolden is an infectious disease physician with Morris Hospital Infectious Disease Specialists and he is chairman of infection control at Morris Hospital & Healthcare Centers. He sees patients at his office at 425 E. U.S. Route 6 in Morris. For more information about pertussis or to make an appointment, contact Dr. Bolden at his office at 815-513-3074 or visit www.morrishospital.org/infectiousdisease.