Protect yourself and your family from whooping cough
By Lillian Shirley, RN, MPH, MPA, Multnomah County Health Department Director
It seems like summer just arrived here in Oregon, yet another school year is right around the corner. As summer winds down and families make back-to-school plans, the Multnomah County Health Department and other community organizations are gearing up to support children, families, schools, and communities to keep kids healthy and in school, so that they can learn and succeed.
Supporting kids in school is an important part of our health department’s vision of healthy people in healthy communities. We know that student health affects test scores, attendance, classroom behavior, grades, and graduation rates.
Every year, we work to keep students healthy through School Based Health Clinics, oral health programs, immunization services, and through working with schools to encourage healthy eating and increased physical activity for all students. This year, we are taking special care to remind everyone to help stop the spread of disease by practicing good health habits and by staying current on all required vaccines, especially for whooping cough.
What is whooping cough?
Whooping cough, also called pertussis, is a serious respiratory infection caused by bacteria. It spreads easily through coughing and sneezing. Anyone can get whooping cough. It starts like a common cold, with runny nose or congestion, sneezing, and sometimes a mild fever. After one to two weeks, severe, persistent coughing begins.
Whooping cough can be recognized by dry, hacking coughing fits that can make the person gasp for air. It is this high-pitched gasping or “whooping” sound that some (but not all) people make that the disease is named after. Antibiotics are used to treat whooping cough and make people less contagious.
Infants, especially newborns, are at the greatest risk for serious complications from whooping cough, such as trouble breathing, pneumonia, seizures, and even death. For this reason, it is important for families, including grandparents and others around newborns, to protect themselves in order to protect the infants who are too young to be immunized. Anyone with a long-lasting cough should get checked by a health care provider. The best way to know if you have whooping cough is to get tested.
Whooping cough rates are rising across the nation and in the Pacific Northwest. Currently, the state of Washington is experiencing a whooping cough epidemic. According to the Washington State Department of Health, as of the third week in July, Washington has had 3,180 cases of whooping cough this year, compared with 230 cases during the same time period last year. Though the numbers in Oregon are not nearly as high, we are seeing an increased number of cases here too.
Vaccinate to prevent whooping cough
Vaccination is the best way to prevent whooping cough. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that infants and children get vaccinated against whooping cough (DTaP) at 2 months, 4 months, 6 months and finally between 15 and 18 months. A booster shot is also given to children between 4 and 6 years of age.
Because protection from the whooping cough vaccine may fade over time, another dose of vaccine (Tdap) is recommended for adolescents — ideally at age 11 or 12 — and adults. Pregnant women should get the vaccine in their late second or early third trimester if they did not have one as a teenager or adult.
Practice good habits
In addition to staying current with recommended vaccinations, the best way to keep from getting sick and spreading disease — whether it is a cold, influenza or whooping cough — is to:
- Stay home if you are sick and stay home until you are better.
- Wash your hands frequently throughout the day.
- Cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue or your arm.
With kids heading back to school, now is the time to remind them that doing these three things will help keep them be healthier throughout the school year.
Make sure that all your family members are up-to-date with their vaccinations. Call your health provider or use your child’s back-to-school check-up or sports physical to ask whether you and your kids are current on vaccines. If you are uninsured, contact your local health department for information on free or low-cost vaccinations.
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