When I was in sixth grade, the book Cheaper by the Dozen was required reading. I never really understood the train scene of the family coming back from California. It was described as “miserable” when the entire family caught the “whooping cough.”  I am fortunate enough to have grown up in an era when no one I knew HAD “whooping cough.”  I mean, really, just how bad can a cough BE?  Isn’t that what Robitussin® is for?  Or one of those fancy prescription cough medicines the doctor can give you?  That codeine stuff?

Now I know that the reason that no one got whooping cough when I was younger was due to a vaccine that I received called DTP. We now give a slightly different version of the vaccine called DTaP. Children are supposed to received DTaP at 2, 4, 6, 12-18 months, and 4 years of age. They then get a booster dose of a related vaccine called TDaP at 11 and a second TDaP booster in adulthood (recently added to the recommendations).

Whooping cough, which is also known as pertussis, has been on the rise all over the country, and in Tarrant County for several years now. There are various theories as to why it is coming back.  Some theories center around the idea that people’s immunity toward pertussis wears off as they get older.  Others deal with the issue of people who do not vaccinate themselves or their children. Still more center on possible mutations in the illness itself. Whatever the cause, what we do know is that it is here and causing problems.

In the last month, I’ve seen more pertussis in our clinic that I’ve seen in my career. We have had somewhere around 15 cases just in the hallway where I work, with at least one child hospitalized for complications. Whooping cough can be very dangerous for children, especially if they are under age 1, but many parents don’t realize that their children have it until they have been sick for at least a couple of weeks. At the beginning, it can look like a simple cold. The typical story is that the child has been sick for 2 weeks or more and is having “coughing spasms” that can cause them to “lose their breath,” vomit, or even pass out.  Regular cough medicine hasn’t helped (not to mention it isn’t recommended in children).  Parents have typically tried all of the regular tricks like honey, humidifiers, vapor rubs, etc. 

Under age 1, however, children don’t necessarily cough.  Instead of coughing, infants may simply not breathe, which is called apnea. Since that is a very dangerous and silent problem that can kill, we must do our best to protect infants from even catching pertussis – which is where vaccination comes back into play.  All people in the same household as an infant, including adults, should have a current pertussis vaccination.

Unfortunately, pertussis doesn’t have a simple, quick test like strep or flu does.  In our office in Mansfield, we do have a test that we can take the sample in the office, though, which isn’t typical of many clinics.  The result from the test is usually available in about 3 days. Pertussis can be treated with an antibiotic, but only if it is caught early. Once past the early phase, a person must simply recover from it, and that can take up to 3 months, even if there are no complications from the infection.

Vaccination is not a 100 percent guarantee that children will not get the whooping cough, however, it has been shown to greatly reduce their chances of getting it, and if they do get it, their case will likely be less severe than if they were not vaccinated. There are also children who cannot receive the DTaP vaccine for various reasons, some of whom have serious health problems. We all need to do the best we can to protect ourselves and our neighbors from this disease, which is making quite the comeback in our community.

  Laurie Gray, M.D., is a Cook Children’s pediatrician, located at 701 Matlock Road in Mansfield, Texas.


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