There has been a surge of whooping cough across the United
States, and Illinois is one of 20 states seeing even more cases
than the national average. If the current trend continues, we will
see the highest number of cases since 1959, when 40,000 illnesses
Whooping cough is a highly contagious respiratory
infection that moves easily from person to person through coughs
and sneezes. It often starts like a cold, but progresses to
coughing episodes that are so severe it is difficult for children
to catch their breath. The coughing ends with a "whoop" sound as
the child gasps for breath, thus the name whooping
Coughing spells may lead to vomiting, choking, difficulty
breathing, fainting, sleep problems and even rib fractures.
Symptoms usually last 6-10 weeks or more and some children need to
Whooping cough is caused by the bacteria Bordetella
pertussis. Children are routinely immunized against this disease
with five injections of the DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus, acellular
pertussis) vaccine given at ages 2 months, 4 months, 6 months,
15-18 months, and 4-6 years. Booster doses of Tdap (tetanus,
diphtheria, acellular pertussis) are recommended at 11-12 years old
and every 10 years thereafter.
The disease is most dangerous in infants under 6 months
old, especially those who are preterm or unimmunized. Most of the
increase in pertussis is being seen among children 7-10 years old
and in early teens ages 13-14.
Health investigators are trying to figure out why the
spike in cases.
Theories include better detection and reporting, an
evolution in the bacteria that cause the illness, or shortcomings
in the vaccine. The vaccine was modified several years ago to make
it safer, but the modifications may have made it less
Unimmunized children do not appear to be a major factor in
the outbreak since most of the children who develop the disease
were immunized. However, when unimmunized children do get the
disease they are more infectious, have more severe symptoms, the
illness lasts longer and they are at higher risk for
The best prevention is hand washing or sanitizing, keeping
your hands away from your mouth, eyes and nose, staying away from
people who are ill, and stepping back a few feet from people who
are coughing or sneezing.
During a pertussis outbreak, unimmunized children under 7
should not attend school or public gatherings for 14 days after the
last reported case. Infants under 2 months are at high risk for
getting the disease, so pregnant moms, dads and older children in
the home should be sure they are vaccinated to protect the
For more information, visit cdc.gov.
Dr. Lisa Thornton, a mother of three, is director of pediatric rehabilitation at Schwab Rehabilitation Hospital and LaRabida Children’s Hospital. She also is assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Chicago.
See more of Dr. Thornton's stories here.
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