Public health officials are bracing for a potential epidemic of whooping cough this spring.
The disease, also referred to as pertussis, peaks every few years in the United States.
“This year is likely to be an epidemic year,” Dr. Dean Blumberg, chief of pediatric infectious diseases at the University of California Davis Children’s Hospital, told the Sacramento Bee. “We would expect toward late spring, a ramping up of cases.”
Whooping cough is a highly contagious respiratory disease characterized by an uncontrollable, violent cough that makes it difficult to breathe.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there has been an increase in the number of reported cases of whooping cough since the 1980s.
A 2010 peak saw an increase in the number of children aged 7 to 10 with whooping cough. This trend has continued in the years following.
The most recent peak in 2012 had the highest number of cases since 1955, when 62,000 cases were reported.
A dangerous illness
Whooping cough can be life threatening, especially in infants. But early symptoms can often be overlooked as something minor.
“Initially, whooping cough looks like a common cold. The first stage can last as long as a week. The second stage is the stage in which we see paroxysms or spasms of cough that create the classic whoop sound. Frequently, this is followed by vomiting. Usually whooping cough is an afebrile disease, meaning most children do not get a fever during the illness,” Dr. Jaime Friedman, a pediatrician at the Children’s Primary Care Medical Group in California, told Healthline.
Friedman says if a parent is worried about their child’s breathing or other symptoms, they should see a doctor as soon as possible. If they fear their child has been exposed to whooping cough, they should call their doctor’s office to discuss steps that should be taken.
It’s also important to look for signs that symptoms are from more than just a cold.
“Any cough that causes shortness of breath, lasts longer than two weeks, or is accompanied by fever for more than three to five days should be checked,” Friedman said. “Parents should watch the child’s breathing, as breathing should be passive. Any sign that the child is using extra effort to breathe needs to be seen. If the muscles in between the ribs are sinking in, the child needs to be seen. Whooping cough can cause apnea, this is when a child stops breathing for a short period of time. If that happens, call 911.”
Whooping cough is typically spread from person to person through coughing or sneezing, or when spending a lot of time in the same breathing space with a person who is infected.
Those who become infected with whooping cough are most contagious for up to two weeks from when their cough begins.
But many babies who become infected with whooping cough are infected by siblings, caregivers, parents, or family members who are unaware they have the disease.
Whooping cough can be life threatening for infants.
“Whooping cough is most dangerous to infants because they can’t receive the vaccine until they are two months old. They typically do not show the regular symptoms, which is why it’s so hard to diagnose. About 50 percent of infants who come down with whooping cough have to be treated in a hospital. In serious conditions, infants can stop breathing and turn blue, possibly progressing to a lung infection or even death,” Dr. Jean Moorjani, a pediatrician at Arnold Palmer Hospital for Children in Florida, told Healthline.
Vaccinations are the best prevention
The most effective way to prevent whooping cough is through vaccination.
This not only benefits the children and adults who are vaccinated, but the infants who are not yet old enough to receive a vaccine.
“Young babies under two months of age are not able to receive the vaccine and depend on vaccinated older children and adults for protection. Young babies are also the patients most likely to develop complications from whooping cough, and can even die from it. While pertussis may cause just an annoying cough to older children and adults, it can be a deadly disease for young babies. You can help by making sure you and your family members are vaccinated for protection against pertussis, and remember that you need a booster vaccine about every ten years,” Moorjani said.
The CDC recommends pregnant women get vaccinated during pregnancy so that antibodies from the vaccine can be passed on to their newborn.
Adults should get a booster shot every 10 years and children should get a booster shot at the age of 11 or 12.
“Children over 10 years of age are at increased risk for contracting whooping cough as immunity from childhood immunization wanes. Rates of whooping cough in this population is growing,” Friedman said.
Complications from whooping cough include pneumonia and seizures. In less serious cases, the cough can still linger for a considerable amount of time.
“For older children, teens, and adults, it causes about three months of prolonged cough which is very irritating. This leads to missed work and school, as well as frequent doctor visits. Unfortunately, it is this population that spreads it to infants and babies,” Friedman said.
“It’s our responsibility to take care of everyone in the population. Vaccinating ourselves and our children not only protects us, but protects our community,” she added.
A study last year concluded that vaccination exemptions were a major factor in recent increases in whooping cough cases.