What’s the Big Whoop about Whooping Cough?

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By Constance Caldwell, M.D., Yolo County Health Officer
July 2014

You have probably heard on the news that we are in the midst of a pertussis (whooping cough) epidemic in California. We have already seen over 5,400 cases of pertussis in California this year as compared to a total of 2,372 cases in all of 2013. In Yolo County, we have seen nearly 80 cases so far in 2014, compared to four cases in all of 2013.

What is pertussis anyway and what can you do to prevent it?

Pertussis is a bacterial illness which causes severe coughing fits that can last for weeks. It is spread easily by coughing on others. Pertussis is most dangerous in young infants who can become severely ill very quickly and even die from it.

The symptoms of pertussis vary by age. For children, a typical case of pertussis starts with a cough and runny nose for one to two weeks. The cough then worsens and children may have rapid coughing spells that end with a whooping sound. Young infants may not have typical pertussis symptoms and may have no apparent cough. Parents may describe episodes in which the infant’s face turns red or purple. For adults, pertussis may simply be a cough that persists for several weeks.

What can you do about it? Prevention of the illness with the vaccine is the best course of action. However, immunity from pertussis is not life-long. Because infants can get very sick and even die, we are most focused on preventing the spread of illness to them. It is now recommended that pregnant women receive a dose of TdaP vaccine with every pregnancy. Infants can start their vaccine series as early as six weeks of age. Children entering kindergarten and seventh grade need a booster of the pertussis vaccine. One dose of TdaP vaccine is also recommended for all adults, especially those living with or caring for young infants.

Where can you get pertussis vaccine? The vaccine is available from most physicians and clinics and from many pharmacies. Pertussis vaccine is also available at the Yolo County Health Department for those without insurance or who are on MediCal. There is a $10 fee, but no one will be turned away. Immunization clinics are held on Monday afternoons from 2:00 to 5:00 p.m. on a drop-in basis. The first Monday of the month, the immunization clinic is held in West Sacramento at 500B Jefferson Boulevard. On the second, third and fourth Mondays, it is held in Woodland at 137 North Cottonwood Street.

If you or your children become ill with a coughing illness, call your doctor or clinic right away. Pertussis can be treated with antibiotics which may shorten the course of the illness, but most importantly, limit the spread of the disease to others.