December 2011 Health Beat

Karen’s Kolumn is written by Karen Dolley, R.N. and Grange Friend… we appreciate her knowledge and her willingness to share!

Pertussis. Whooping Cough. What do you think about when you hear these words? There have been a lot of news reports in recent months about Pertussis and about Pertussis outbreaks across the country and in our State.

Pertussis is caused by the bacteria (Bordetella pertussis). It is spread from person to person through the air by droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes. A non-infected person breathes in the droplets and gets sick. Whooping Cough is one of the most highly communicable childhood diseases. Even in immunized populations like those in the United States, outbreaks occur. Adults may carry the bacteria without symptoms but they transmit the disease to children, especially when immunization rates decrease.

Pertussis begins with cold like symptoms. These include a runny nose, sneezing, low grade fever, and coughing. After a few weeks, the cough gets much worse. The cough is often much worse at night. The cough is uncontrollable and one cough may follow another and another without a break. Vomiting frequently occurs after coughing. Many children will make a high pitched “whooping” sound when breathing in after a coughing episode. The cough can last for several weeks or months! If you have a cough that lasts for two weeks or longer, please see your healthcare provider.

Pertussis is treated with antibiotics and treatment is important in preventing the spread of the disease to others. Antibiotics may also be given to close contacts of persons with Pertussis to prevent them from getting sick. Persons who are sick with Pertussis can infect other people during the first three weeks they are coughing. Cough medicines are not helpful.

Pertussis in infants is often severe and life threatening. Infants are more likely to develop complications like pneumonia and seizures. Older children and adults can get Pertussis but it is usually less severe. They can however still spread the disease to younger children and infants.

There is a vaccine for Pertussis. The vaccine is given in combination with the tetanus vaccine and the diphtheria vaccine. Children under age seven should get five DTap shots at 2,4,6,12-15 months and again at 4-6 years of age. Adolescents should get a booster usually at 11 years of age. Adolescents 13-18 years of age should receive a booster if they have not received a tetanus shot within the past five years. Adults should receive a booster if they are in contact with infants that are less than 12 months of age, are elderly, or work in the healthcare industry. If you are pregnant, check with your healthcare provider. There are new recommendations based on studies that show a pregnant woman who receives a booster may transfer antibodies to the unborn baby that will help to protect him/her from the disease during those first few months of life. Children who are vaccinated may still get Pertussis, but the disease will generally be milder. Protection does decrease over time so ask your healthcare provider if it may be time for a booster.

In Maine, Pertussis has been reported in all counties and outbreaks have occurred, especially among school aged children.

Pertussis can be prevented by vaccinating all children on time, avoiding close contact with others who are sick or coughing, frequent handwashing, staying at home if you are not feeling well, covering your mouth with a tissue or coughing into your sleeve, taking antibiotics as directed by your health care provider, and by finishing all medications as ordered.

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