Whooping Cough: It’s back and it’s bad
In April, Washington State declared a pertussis epidemic, with victims numbering upwards of 3,000. Wisconsin is in similar trouble. As of the end of July, nine people are dead from the infection, and the number of cases had more than doubled from this time last year. The CDC predicts that this could be the worst outbreak since 1959, when 40,000 people were infected by this highly contagious disease.
What is whooping cough?
Pertussis, more commonly known as whooping cough due to the sound made by victims as they struggle to breath after coughing, is an upper respiratory infection. It is most dangerous for infants, and most likely to attack babies who have not yet had a full set of immunizations and children and young teenagers (ages 10 -14) whose immunization protection has worn off.
Whooping cough is bacterial and airborne, spread through minute particles in the air expelled by infected people. Fatality from whooping cough is rare, but infants are most likely to die when exposed.
At first, whooping cough mimics a cold. Sufferers develop a runny nose, congestion, sneezing, watery eyes, a dry cough, and a mild fever. But after a week or two, when a cold would be over, symptoms worsen. Mucous thickens and accumulates in the airways, causing coughing fits. Excessive coughing can result in vomiting, fatigue, a red or blue coloring in the face, and the characteristic high-pitched whooping sound. If any of those symptoms appear, you need to see a doctor as soon as possible.
For young teens, complications are rare. It’s a different story for infants, especially those under 6 months old. Complications for babies can include ear infections, pneumonia, slowed or stopped breathing, dehydration, seizures, or brain damage. Whooping cough should be considered life-threatening condition for babies under 6 months.
Home care for older victims
Care for teenagers with whooping cough is similar to care of any respiratory illness. Lots of fluid, plenty of rest, a vaporizer to help thin the mucous, and small meals to help prevent vomiting. Irritants in the air that might trigger a coughing fit, like smoke, dust, or other allergens, should be eliminated if possible, and measures should be taken to avoid spreading the bacteria.
Interestingly, in 1997, the old DPT vaccine was discontinued and a new vaccine was introduced. The DPT vaccine contained whole cell parts from killed pertussis bacteria. The new DTaP has small acellular bacteria pieces instead. The CDC plans an investigation to evaluate the efficacy of the new vaccine in light of the severity of recent outbreaks. In the meantime, booster shots should be encouraged for children, adults, especially pregnant women.