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Dangers of pertussis and how you can prevent it

Michele Borboa, MS is a freelance writer and editor specializing in health, fitness, food, lifestyle, and pets. Michele is a health and wellness expert, personal chef, cookbook author, and pet-lover based in Bozeman, Montana. She is also...

Health dangers of pertussis

If you ever see (or hear) a child with pertussis (the respiratory disease also known as whooping cough), you will never forget it. The child is gripped by repeated violent coughs that expel the air from his lungs to the point he must "whoop" to breathe. Though the cough alone is frightening, pertussis can create additional health dangers and even lead to death. Here's how you can protect your family from this highly contagious respiratory disease.

Sick toddler girl

Pertussis: not just a common cold

Pertussis is often mistaken for a cold or other respiratory condition because it starts out with a runny nose, low-grade fever, sneezing and a nonspecific cough. Within a week or two, however, a minor cough turns into violent, rapid coughing that empties the lungs of air to the point that a child has to "whoop" to inhale. Pertussis is highly contagious, spreading primarily through coughing and sneezing, and is most commonly contracted in school settings. That "common cold" you think your child has could actually prove to be a danger to your family.

Dangers of pertussis

The whooping associated with pertussis can be particularly concerning, but the health complications associated with the disease are much more threatening. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns that one in 10 children who get pertussis also get pneumonia. One in 50 children have convulsions. One child in every 250 develops encephalopathy, a disease or disorder of the brain. Worse, 10 to 20 deaths from pertussis occur in the US every year.

According to the CDC, infants are at most risk of suffering health complications from pertussis; more than half the infants who get the disease need to be hospitalized. Many infants actually get pertussis from their older siblings or parents, who are exposed to the disease at school or in other settings. Pertussis doesn't seem to be as dangerous for adolescents or adults, but adults who get pertussis run the risk of missing work and enduring a recovery that can last as long as two months.

Vaccinations: The best way to prevent pertussis

Avoiding exposure to pertussis is one way to ensure your family stays free of the disease, but that can prove impossible since schools and healthcare settings can be a hotbed for the bacteria that causes it.

Getting vaccinated against pertussis is the best way to protect your family from the disease. The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices (ACIP) recommends the DTaP vaccine series starting when infants are 2 months old. The DTaP also protects against tetanus and diptheria.

Immunity to pertussis begins to wane in adolescence, so the ACIP recommends a booster vaccine called Tdap for adolescents aged 11 to 18 (preferably at around 11 or 12 years old). Tdap is also recommended for 19- to 64year-old adults who haven't had it prior. Adults aged 19 to 64 years who have close contact with an infant or work in healthcare or ambulatory settings should also receive a Tdap.

Following the pertussis vaccine recommendations can prevent pertussis from putting your family at risk for the disease's more serious health complications, which can even include death.

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