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Is Pertussis The Same As Whooping Cough? It's More Severe Than It Sounds

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If you've ever looked at a vaccination checklist, one of the top vaxes listed is the TDAP vaccine. It's the combination vaccine that covers tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis. It's one of the first because all three diseases are possibly deadly for anyone who may contract them and this is especially true for the vulnerable young population. In the case of the highly contagious pertussis virus, it's a growing problem because of large communities of unvaccinated children and adults. But, what is pertussis exactly? Is pertussis the same as whooping cough?

Bordetella pertussis is the same thing as whooping cough, and is a unique respiratory disease because it is highly inflammatory, isn't often accompanied by a high fever, and it tends to affect girls more severely and often than boys, according to PLOS Pathogens. It is characterized by its severe, non-productive coughing fits followed by completely normal respirations. That is to say, the child or adult affected will be able to breath as they normally would when they aren't coughing. The problem is when the fits become so close together that they lead to cyanosis and apnea, which deprive the brain of oxygen and ultimately may lead to brain damage and death of those who are the most severely affected by the disease itself.

CDC.gov

Let me tell you a story about my experience in nursing school. It was my very first day doing rounds in the pediatric intensive care unit. I was nervous, but happy to be surrounded by kids who needed help I could provide. By the time you get to PICU and NICU, you've been to all the adult wards of the hospital as well as the emergency department and labor and delivery. The very last departments you train in are the PICU, NICU, and pediatric hematology and oncology. Simply put: nothing can prepare you for it, and yet you need all the preparation you can get before you get there because no one wants a greenhorn taking care of their possibly terminally ill child.

That day in February was bitterly cold and windy and I remember thinking as I walked into the hospital just how hard it was to breathe in such cold, dry weather. Little did I know that I'd encounter a 6-week-old infant who couldn't breathe even with the best assistance available. The baby had been exposed to and contracted the pertussis virus recently from unvaccinated siblings in the home, and because the baby was too young to get the vaccine (the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends it to babies older than 2 months), the baby became symptomatic and it quickly became a life-threatening situation for them. The baby was fully intubated and their lips and extremities were blue. Simply put, the baby was dying. That baby wouldn't survive my shift.

Deaths like these are preventable, but occurring more and more frequently according to Harvard University. They keep happening because even though we have a vaccine we know is effective against the pertussis pathogen, the anti-vaccine misinformation campaign has damaged our herd immunity — the immunity granted a community with most of its population vaccinated. Also, because not everyone realizes they need a TDAP booster if you haven't received one as an adult, per the CDC recommendations. This includes pregnant women. You, your partner, and other adults that are around your children need the TDAP booster when you bring your baby home. Your other children need to be vaccinated as well.

So what should you do if you suspect your child has whooping cough? What you're looking for is a cold that progresses, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). It will escalate into shortness of breath, prolonged periods of dry coughing, the baby or child's lips might turn blue, and they might drool or vomit. According to the AAP, your child will likely be exhausted from the symptoms, and appear lethargic. If your child does vomit, appears exhausted/sick, begins to turn blue, or if you know they've not been inoculated against pertussis, that's when the AAP recommends getting your child to the doctor right away.

It's a terrifying disease, and the best defense is a good offense. Call your primary care provider or pediatrician and get the TDAP vaccine.

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