In light of the recent outbreak of whooping cough in daycares, Lurie Children’s infectious disease specialist Larry Kociolek, MD, offers tips on how to recognize and prevent whooping cough in your children.
Coughing is an all too common ailment this time of year. But recently, parents in the Chicago area have had to wonder if their child’s cough is a sign of a serious, but hard to identify, condition. “Pertussis, also known as whooping cough, is difficult to identify in its early stages because the symptoms are hard to differentiate from other mild respiratory viral illnesses that are much more common,” says Larry Kociolek, MD, a physician in Lurie Children’s Division of Infectious Diseases.
Early symptoms include runny nose, congestion and a relatively mild cough. It’s not until the illness progresses and enters the second phase that symptoms become more severe. In this phase, symptoms often include coughing fits that may cause a child or infant to vomit. In older children and adults, a strong gasp at the end of a coughing fit will result in a large “whoop” noise.
One of the biggest obstacles to recognizing whooping cough in young kids and infants is that they often don’t produce the whooping noise when coughing. “Most often, kids do not whoop – even in the advanced stages of the illness, a young child or infant will not produce the whooping noise. That’s a symptom older children and adults have. A child or infant’s respiratory muscles do not have the strength to generate enough force to make a whooping noise.”
Those most at risk for acquiring pertussis and developing complications from pertussis are young infants under the age of 6 months. Infants are often times not protected against pertussis because they haven’t completed the three pertussis vaccines given in the first six months of life.
“It’s a highly spreadable illness. The disease is spread through respiratory droplets. If you are infected and cough, the droplets that you cough into the air contain the bacteria, and those around you can breathe in the droplets and develop pertussis,” says Dr. Kociolek. He warns it is not an airborne disease. The infected droplets do not stay in the air long and only travel a short distance, unlike measles.
How can you protect yourself and your infant or child? Get vaccinated. The vaccine protects the vast majority of individuals from contracting pertussis.
“The best thing to do is to make sure you and your children are up-to-date on vaccines. It’s important for those who are regularly around infants in the home or at work (siblings, grandparents, nanny, teachers, etc.) to get vaccinated to protect infants. This is what we call cocooning – vaccinating everyone around the infant to protect the infant from acquiring the disease.”