Health & Medicine

Vaccine is the best protection against whooping cough

Fans crowd the scene of a memorial rally and car cruise in Valencia, Calif., on Sunday to remember actor Paul Walker.
Fans crowd the scene of a memorial rally and car cruise in Valencia, Calif., on Sunday to remember actor Paul Walker. Herald-Leader

Pertussis, also known as whooping cough, is a highly contagious respiratory disease known for uncontrollable coughing that often makes it hard to breathe.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were 553 cases of pertussis in Kentucky in 2012 and more than 41,000 cases nationwide. Because mild symptoms often resemble the common cold, it is likely that the true incidence of pertussis is much higher. Scott County Schools recently had an outbreak of several dozen cases.

Pertussis is spread by coughing or sneezing while in close contact with others who then breathe in the pertussis bacteria. Pertussis most commonly affects infants and young children and can be fatal, especially in babies younger than 1. Many infants are infected by family members or caregivers who are unaware they have the disease.

Symptoms of pertussis usually develop within seven to 10 days after being exposed, but may not occur for up to six weeks. The cough may become violent and rapid if the disease progresses. This extreme coughing can cause vomiting and fatigue and may last for 10 weeks or more.

The best way to prevent pertussis is to get vaccinated. The recommended pertussis vaccine for infants and children is DtaP, a combination vaccine that protects against diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis. It is generally given during a child's 2-month, 4-month and 6-month checkups, with boosters given between 15 and 20 months and again at 4 to 6 years.

Because DtaP's protection fades with time, children entering sixth grade in Kentucky must receive a Tdap vaccine, which contains the same components as the DtaP but in slightly different proportions. This vaccine is considered protective for 10 years but should be repeated every 10 years to continue the protection.

Adults should get a Tdap vaccine instead of their next regular tetanus booster shot recommended every 10 years. The dose of Tdap can be given earlier than the 10-year mark, so adults should talk to a health care provider about what is best for their specific situation.

No vaccine is 100 percent effective. Because pertussis is highly contagious, there is a chance that a fully vaccinated person of any age can catch it. 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 a long time, the best way to know if it is pertussis is to see your health care provider.