Could You Have Whooping Cough?

Whooping cough. The term conjures up images of poor, sick children making the characteristic whoop as they struggle to bring air into their sick lungs. While this image may once have been accurate, the whooping cough of today is more cough and less whoop.

The two populations who suffer most from pertussis (as it is officially known) are infants and adults. Those less than six months have not yet been fully vaccinated and can die before they even have the lung capacity to make the characteristic whoop. Adults will likely experience pertussis as a persistent cough (without any telltale whoop) that can last weeks and months.

Children are vaccinated against pertussis beginning at two months of age when they are given the DTaP vaccine — diptheria, tetanus and acellular pertussis. Unfortunately, protection against the disease is generally not long lasting, and these vaccinated children become vulnerable to the disease as they graduate from high school. The result is a population of adults who are susceptible to pertussis, catch pertussis, and are capable of transmitting it to the very young and vulnerable.

While pediatricians are sensitive to the presence of coughs in their patients, general practitioners frequently misdiagnose pertussis as bronchitis, allergies or asthma. Dr. James Cherry, chief of pediatric infectious disease at UCLA Children’s Hospital, found that 26 percent of college students reporting a cough that lasted six days or more actually suffered from pertussis. Unfortunately, very few of those individuals were actually diagnosed with pertussis and prescribed the recommended antibiotic — erythromycin for 14 days.

Jim explains what it is like to suffer from a persistent cough: “It is very frustrating to think that I went to doctors repeatedly and did not have pertussis come up as a possible diagnosis.”

The frustration that Jim feels while suffering from a persistent and irritating cough is nothing compared to the suffering an unprotected infant would experience if it contracted the disease from him or from another adult.

Dr. describes the effect of pertussis on adults, “Usually no serious harm comes to the individual, but rather a lot of discomfort and frustration due to the 100 day cough. The spread to others is the main concern, especially to children under six months of age, as they can on rare occasion die from it and are often hospitalized.”

The DTaP vaccine used in children is not recommended for adolescents or children, and there is currently no pertussis vaccine available for adults. So, what should you do if you suspect you have pertussis? Unfortunately, all you can do is go to your physician, insist that pertussis be considered as a possible diagnosis, take the complete course of any antibiotics that are prescribed, and avoid close contact with infants.

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