The ABCs of whooping cough

Contributing writerMay 20, 2012 

The current outbreak of whooping cough, or pertussis, has been in the news for weeks.

Whooping cough causes a cough that can last several weeks. While it can be a mild illness in older children and adults, it can cause severe illness in infants and pregnant women. Infants are at highest risk for complications such as difficulty breathing, pneumonia, convulsions and even death.

So it’s important to know how you should respond.

First, check with your health care provider to see if your whooping cough vaccination is current. Whooping cough vaccine is available, there is no shortage. Residents should not hesitate to be immunized by their health care provider or local pharmacies, if there is any doubt that their vaccination is current. For information about where to find pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine in Thurston County, go to

People who should be immunized for whooping cough include:

 • Anyone who cares for, or has close contact with infants that are 12 months old or younger.

 • Pregnant women and those who care for, or have close contact with, pregnant women.

 • Children, who should receive pertussis vaccine as part of the regular schedule of recommended vaccines. Keeping your child up to date on all their vaccines remains important.

 • Adults whose last tetanus immunization was five or more years ago, because adult tetanus vaccines at that time did not usually include pertussis.

 • Adults who are unsure of their immunization status for whooping cough.

There is no pertussis-only vaccine. The vaccine for children as old as 7 is called Dtap (Diphtheria, Tetanus and Pertussis); for older children and adults, the vaccine is called Tdap (Tetanus, Diphtheria and Pertussis). Immunity to whooping cough lessens over time, which is why teens and adults should have a booster vaccine even if they once had whooping cough or had all their childhood vaccines.

In addition to being vaccinated, there are other things you can do to stop the spread of whooping cough to infants. Stay away from infants and pregnant women when you are sick with a cough. If asked, wear a face mask that covers your mouth and nose when caring for infants.

Masks help because whooping cough is spread through face-to-face contact with someone who is sick with the disease. The disease goes from person to person through tiny drops of fluid from an infected person’s nose or mouth. These drops can become airborne when the person sneezes or coughs. People can become infected by inhaling the drops or getting the drops on their hands and then touching their mouth or nose.

If you or someone in your family has a severe cough that causes vomiting or difficulty breathing, please call your health care provider. You cannot be sure if a cough is whooping cough without having a test done.

Someone who is diagnosed with whooping cough is usually treated with an antibiotic. It is important to take medicine prescribed as directed. It might not stop the coughing, but does keep you from spreading the disease after five days of treatment.

And always embrace these disease-fighting practices: cover your cough, stay home when you are sick, and wash your hands frequently.

Dr. Diana T. Yu is Health Officer for Thurston and Mason counties. Reach her at 360-867-2501 or

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