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Pertussis: What You Should Know

In Brief

  • Pertussis is a very contagious disease only found in humans and is spread from person to person. People with pertussis usually spread the disease by coughing or sneezing while in close contact with others, who then breathe in the pertussis bacteria.
  • Pertussis is treated with antibiotics, which are used to control the symptoms and to reduce the chances of spreading the infection to other people.
  • It is strongly encouraged for health care workers to get a single dose of Tdap vaccine.

This past winter, Delaware County saw a rise in patients with pertussis, commonly known as the whooping cough. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), in 2009, nearly 17,000 cases of pertussis were reported in the United Stated and many more go undiagnosed and unreported. The whooping cough is highly contagious. If not treated it could be fatal, especially in children less than 1 year of age.

Pertussis is caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis. These bacteria attach to the cilia (tiny, hair-like extensions) that line part of the upper respiratory system. The bacteria release toxins, which damage the cilia and cause inflammation (swelling). Pertussis is known for uncontrollable, violent coughing which often makes it hard to breathe. After fits of many coughs, someone with pertussis often needs to take deep breathes which result in a "whooping" sound. Pertussis most commonly affects infants and young children.

Pertussis is a very contagious disease only found in humans. People with pertussis usually spread the disease by coughing or sneezing while in close contact with others, who then breathe in the pertussis bacteria. Older siblings, parents or caregivers infect many infants who get pertussis without even knowing it. Symptoms of pertussis usually develop within 7-10 days after being exposed, but sometimes not for as long as six weeks.

“Pertussis begins as a mild illness, similar to the common cold with sneezing, runny nose, low-grade fever and mild coughing which progresses to severe coughing,” says Jackeline Iacovella, M.D., chief of the Section of Infectious Diseases and chair of Infection Prevention and Control at Delaware County Memorial Hospital. “Complications of pertussis can include pneumonia, dehydration, seizures, encephalopathy and death.”

Pertussis vaccines are very effective in protecting you from disease, but no vaccine is 100 percent effective. “If pertussis is circulating in the community, there is a chance that a fully vaccinated person, of any age, can catch this very contagious disease. Children should be routinely immunized by DTap vaccine at ages 2, 4, 6, and 15 months and again at 4 and 6 years old,” Iacovella says.

“The most effective way to prevent pertussis is through vaccination with DTap for infants and children, and with Tdap for ages 19-64. If you have been vaccinated, the infection is usually less severe. If you or your child develops a cold that includes a severe cough or a cough that lasts for a long time, it may be pertussis. The best way to know is to contact your doctor,” says Jeffrey Darnall, M.D., chief of the Section of Infectious Diseases at Taylor Hospital.

Pertussis is treated with antibiotics, which are used to control the symptoms and to reduce the chances of spreading the infection to other people.

“When a patient presents with pertussis, it is often recommended for members of the household and those other who came in close contact with the patient to receive an antibiotic treatment. By treating everyone who comes in close contact, you have a better chance of stopping the disease from spreading,” says William Ravreby, M.D., chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Crozer-Chester Medical Center. 

“Healthcare personnel who work in hospitals, ambulatory centers and offices can easily be infected. They then transmit the bacteria to their patients, co-workers and families. It is strongly encouraged for healthcare workers to get a single dose of Tdap vaccine,” Iacovella says.

Crozer-Keystone provided vaccines for health system employees through Employee Health in the beginning of the cold and flu season. To learn more about getting a vaccination for pertussis, contact the Employee Health office at a CKHS hospital.

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