Santa Cruz County has had at least 60 known cases (twice the number as last year) and probably many more cases, which have not been reported or have yet to be diagnosed.
Pertussis, also called whooping cough, is a highly contagious infection of the lower respiratory tract, involving the lungs. It usually manifests as a mild persistent cough, but can advance to a severe cough. Often in children, this cough is followed by a high-pitched intake of breath that sounds like “whoop” – thus the name “whooping cough.”
Pertussis is caused by a germ which is a bacteria and not a virus. It is passed from an infected person who sneezes or coughs and therefore spreads infected tiny droplets into the lungs of anyone who may be nearby.
Once in the lungs, the germs can cause an infection, thereby creating inflammation and narrowing of the lung's breathing tubes. This produces the cough and the characteristic whooping sound.
Infants are particularly vulnerable because they are not fully immune to whooping cough until they’ve received at least 3 immunization shots.
This leaves those 6 months and younger at greatest risk for catching the infection.
The pertussis vaccine one receives as a child wears off in 5 to 10 years, leaving most teenagers and adults susceptible to the infection during an outbreak.
Also, more parents are choosing not to vaccinate their children, thus lowering the number of immunized individuals. This, coupled with the fact that newer vaccines are less potent than the older ones, has increased transmission of pertussis.
The diagnosis of pertussis is often delayed or missed in infants because early symptoms are often mild and the serious cough may not begin for days or even weeks later.
A severe infection in infants can be fatal, although this is thankfully rare. Three infant deaths due to pertussis have been reported in California since the beginning of the year.
One must consider pertussis for anyone with a cough lasting more than 2 weeks, especially when the person generally feels well, coughs worse at night, and has prolonged coughing spells.
The vaccine for pertussis is combined with the tetanus and diphtheria vaccines which are routinely given to children in their first years of life, and to adults every 10 years.
Besides infants, those who especially need the vaccine protection are pregnant women in their third trimester because they will soon have contact with their unprotected infant.
Mothers have been found to be the greatest source of transmitting whooping cough to the newborn. Infants can also be protected by vaccinating those people who have close contact with them.
This “family” protection has been highly successful in protecting susceptible infants.
Tests are available to diagnose pertussis. The decision whether or not to test should be left to your doctor.
Antibiotics can be effective especially when given soon after symptoms begin. After several weeks of symptoms, they are much less effective.
Family members can also be prescribed preventative antibiotics. Remember that pertussis is caused by bacteria and can usually be treated with an antibiotic, but if you just have a bad cough from something like routine bronchitis, which is caused by a virus, antibiotics are not effective.
Your doctor will be able to determine the proper diagnosis and treatment.
Bottom line: I recommend to immunize your children and keep immunizations up to date for yourselves.
- Terry Hollenbeck, M.D., is an urgent-care physician at Palo Alto Medical Foundation Santa Cruz in Scotts Valley. Readers can view his previous columns on his website, valleydoctor.wordpress.com, or email him at email@example.com. Information in this column is not intended to replace advice from your own health care professional. For any medical concern, consult your own doctor.