Whooping cough, or pertussis, is a bacterial infection in the respiratory tract that is transmitted by personal contact, sneezing, coughing and contact with anything that the bacteria has contaminated. It causes sneezing, a runny nose, low-grade fever and a cough that can progress from mild and nonspecific to a severe, repeated cough that empties the lungs of air and causes a distinctive "whoop."
Children are especially at risk because the disease can pass quickly from child to child. Whooping cough outbreaks usually begin in middle or high school settings. Children can spread the disease to their parents and younger siblings, just as parents who don't know they have whooping cough can transmit the disease to their kids.
Though the highly contagious respiratory disease starts out with cold-like symptoms, whooping cough can lead to pneumonia, apnea, seizures, encephalopathy and even death. Infants under 1 year old are at the highest risk of health complications, and more than half of the infants who get whooping cough have to be hospitalized. Adults who get whooping cough usually experience milder symptoms, but may still need up to two months to recover fully.
Vaccination is the best way to protect against whooping cough. According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), pertussis is one of the most vaccine-preventable childhood diseases in the country. In 2005, 25,000 pertussis cases were reported, compared to the 150,000 diagnosed annually before the vaccine.
The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommends the DTaP vaccine series starting in infancy. DTaP also protects against tetanus and diptheria. Since immunity to pertussis can wane over time, the ACIP recommends a booster vaccine called Tdap, which is also a booster for tetanus and diptheria, for adolescents 11 to 18 (preferably at 11 or 12 years old). Tdap is also recommended for 19- to 64-year-olds who haven't had the shot before.
In addition to vaccinations, good hygiene can reduce your child's risk of getting whooping cough. Keeping your children from exposure to the pertussis bacteria can prove challenging because it's so easily spread in school, but teaching them the importance of washing their hands (or using antibacterial wash) can help reduce their risk.
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