Can you protect your child from pertussis?

Sep 22, 2009 at 9:30 p.m. ET

As a parent, you want to protect your child from monsters under the bed, bullies at middle school and broken hearts in high school. But can you protect her from highly contagious childhood illnesses, such as pertussis, that pervade classrooms, playgrounds and mommy-and-me gatherings? Pertussis, better known as whooping cough, is a bacteria-induced respiratory disease that, at its worst, can cause additional health complications and even death, especially for infants. Keep reading to see how you can protect your child -- and the rest of your family -- from contracting pertussis.

Baby getting vaccine

Pertussis is more than a common cold

Pertussis often starts out resembling a common cold, with a runny nose, sneezing, low-grade fever and a nonspecific cough. Within 1 to 2 weeks, however, it progresses to severe, rapid coughing that empties the lungs of air and results in a child "whooping" to inhale. Infants are particularly in danger from pertussis because the disease can lead to pneumonia, apnea, seizures, encephalopathy and even death. More than half of all infants who get pertussis must be hospitalized.

Pertussis is highly contagious

Pertussis is primarily transmitted through coughing and sneezing, and is considered to be one of the most highly contagious of childhood illnesses. Children are particularly susceptible to the disease because schools are a hotbed for pertussis. A study in Massachusetts conducted between 2000 and 2004 indicated that 90 percent of pertussis outbreaks occurred in schools. In the same time period, 41 percent of pertussis cases reported in 11- to 19-year-olds were identified through school outbreaks. Because the disease can show few symptoms in adolescents and adults, many people with pertussis don't know they have it and continue to spread the disease.

Protecting your child from pertussis

Despite pertussis being highly contagious, parents can protect their children by taking preventative measures to minimize exposure and boost immunity against the disease.

Minimizing exposure can prove challenging because pertussis is so easily spread. Teaching your child to wash her hands or use antibacterial wash can lower the risk of transmission, but the best way to protect your child and family is through vaccination.

The Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices recommends the DTaP vaccine series, starting at 2 months of age. The DTaP also protects against tetanus and diphtheria. Since vaccine protection against pertussis can fade, a booster shot, called Tdap, is recommended for adolescents aged 11 to 18 (preferably at 11 or 12 years old), and for 19- to 64-year-old adults who haven't had it prior.

Keeping every member of your family current on the pertussis vaccinations can protect them from contracting and spreading the disease.