Preventing PertussisPertussis, or whooping cough, causes frustration among physicians. Not because the spread of the disease can’t be stopped, but because preventing it is so simple.

Donald Murphey, M.D., medical director of Infectious Disease at Cook Children’s, said that pertussis could be stopped with the proper precautions.

“The solution is for teens and adults to get immunized,” Dr. Murphey said.

Pertussis, a common childhood illness, can be especially dangerous to infants because the bacteria create a toxin that affects the heart and lungs. Pertussis can be fatal to infants with the disease.

More than a cough

Don’t be fooled by the name “whooping cough.” Early symptoms – including a running nose, sneezing, mild cough or low-grade fever – may resemble a common cold, but infants and younger children may not get the cough or whoop. Instead, they may seem to gasp for air with a reddened face or stop breathing for a few seconds during bad spells.

Adults and adolescents may have milder symptoms, but they can be the carriers of the disease who spread severe cases to young children or infants. Newborns under 2 months of age are the most vulnerable to diseases such as pertussis, and their immune systems aren’t ready for vaccinations.

Be proactive

Dr. Murphey is a proponent of cocooning. Cocooning is a proactive approach to protecting the infant. Before the baby is born, everyone who will come near the child on a regular basis receives a pertussis vaccination, including the new parents, siblings, grandparents and anyone else who will be in close proximity of the baby.

For cocooning to work, all those who are in close contact to the newborn should receive the Tdap shot (tetanus, diphtheria, acellular pertussis). To avoid pertussis, children should receive one booster shot of diphtheria, tetanus and acellular pertussis vaccine (DTaP) at age 4. Older school-age children should get the Tdap booster after their 11th birthday.

Jason V. Terk, M.D., a Cook Children’s pediatrician in Keller, Texas, said it’s important for adults to receive on booster shot of the Tdap vaccine because the immunity from their childhood vaccine fades over time. That’s why physicians recommend additional boosters for adolescents and adults.

“Public health is a shared responsibility that we all contribute to by keeping current with our vaccinations,” Dr. Terk said. “The most vulnerable among us depend on each of us to live up to that responsibility.”

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