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What Is Pertussis? What Doctors Want You To Know About Whooping Cough

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The stress of dealing with a sick child reaches an all time high when your kid comes down with something more serious than the common cold. Highly contagious illnesses like pertussis, or whooping cough, can actually strike any time of year, but doctors say there is a time when they see an uptick. Fortunately there are precautions you can take to help protect you and your little ones.

I spoke with Dr. Matthew Washam, director of epidemiology at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, to learn more about pertussis, a bacterial infection that can wreak havoc on the respiratory system. "It gets its name, whooping cough, from the symptoms that it causes where you get these paroxysms, these coughing spells of pretty intense severity... where you cough frequently and then you take a deep breath in and it gives the characteristic whooping sound," Dr. Washam explains.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) noted that anywhere from 10,000 to 40,000 cases of pertussis are reported every year in the U.S. You can catch it any season, but Washam says he's noticed one trend in particular. "If there does tend to be a time period, it's kind of the back to school late summer, early fall time period where you see a spike in cases." The CDC warned that you'll sometimes see outbreaks pop up in places like schools and daycare, where the illness spreads from child to child.

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The tricky thing about pertussis is that at first, you might just think it's a simple cold or virus. "After about seven to 10 days after the exposure occurs, most individuals will start developing cold-like symptoms. This would be runny nose, slight cough... sometimes a low-grade fever," Washam says. The severe coughing doesn't begin until several days later. "These coughing spells are the second phase and ... last for weeks into months."

Part of the reason that pertussis is so contagious is that you're most likely to pass it on when you don't even realize you have it. "Most people are contagious during that initial period where they have this cold-like illness, and then the first two or three weeks in the coughing stage." Anyone who comes down with a case of pertussis will likely need a course of antibiotics, according to the American Lung Association.

Doctors say your best bet to protect your children against pertussis is getting them vaccinated with the DTap vaccine. "Kids can start being vaccinated as young as 2 months of age," Washam says. "I always encourage families to follow the CDC vaccination schedule."

If you're having a baby, your OB-GYN will likely want you to get one, Dr. Jeanne Sheffield, director of the division of maternal-fetal medicine at Johns Hopkins Medicine tells Romper. "It's one of the vaccines that we consider safe for pregnancy, and the recommendations are for all pregnant women to get it every single pregnancy," she says. Typically this happens during the third trimester, says Washam, "to not only protect the mom from getting an infection that could potentially be spread to her infant, but also to develop an immune response to antibodies that the mother can then transfer to the baby."

Washam says the worst pertussis infections tend to occur in babies under a year old. The Mayo Clinic noted that a severe bout of whooping cough can cause pneumonia, dehydration, even seizures and brain damage in young babies. In addition, he advises caregivers and additional family members get vaccinated "as part of the 'cocooning' strategy, where you surround the baby who's too young to start getting vaccinated with family members who are vaccinated to protect them as much as possible," he explains.

Of course, your first line of defense against pertussis — or any other spreadable illness — is practicing good hygiene. The American Thoracic Socety reminds anyone who's sick to cover their mouth when they cough, wash their hands, and stay home from school or work to keep germs from spreading.

Experts:

Dr. Matthew Washam, Director of Epidemiology at Nationwide Children’s Hospital

Dr. Jeanne Sheffield, Director of the Division of Maternal-Fetal Medicine at Johns Hopkins Medicine