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Pertussis, which can cause violent coughing, appears to be more prevalent in recent years. Parents and caregivers should be aware of symptoms and ways to prevent the infection.

If you have children, you know how easily they can pick up infections, such as a stomach bug or a cold. Most infections children develop are not serious and resolve in a short time. But some infections can be dangerous including pertussis.

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What is Pertussis?

Pertussis, also called whooping cough, can be a serious illness, especially for very young children. Pertussis is an infection of the respiratory tract caused by a bacterium called Bordetella pertussis. People of any age can become infected, but it is most dangerous in infants. Although there is a vaccine to prevent pertussis, the disease appears to be making a comeback.

According to the National Network for Immunization Information, prior to the pertussis vaccine, in the United States over 145,000 people became infected with the illness each year. About 8000 people died each year from the illness. A vaccine became available in the mid-1940s and cases of pertussis dramatically decreased.

Bordetella pertussis continues to circulate in the population, but since a large percentage of people are immunized against it, it was not causing infection frequently.

However, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of cases of pertussis has been steadily rising since 2004.

One of the reasons for the increase is parental decision not to vaccinate against the infection.

Recognizing Signs and Symptoms of Pertussis

Symptoms of pertussis often start about one week after becoming infected with the bacteria. There are three stages of the infection. The first stage starts out very similar to a cold. Sneezing, runny nose, loss of appetite and a low-grade fever are common. Although children don’t feel well during this stage, the illness is often mistaken for a cold. This stage of the illness typically lasts about a week or two. 

As the illness progresses, the second stage develops. During this stage, severe bursts of coughing develop. The coughing can be so severe it makes breathing difficult. After a violent episode of coughing, the infected individual may try to catch their breath.

As they draw a breath in, they make a “whooping” sound, which is where the name whooping cough came from.

Coughing can also lead to a sore throat and vomiting.

The second stage often lasts one to six weeks but can last longer. The third stage of the infection is considered the recuperating stage and may last for several weeks. The cough decreases gradually.

A quick diagnosis is essential, especially in infants. The diagnosis is made after a medical exam, review of symptoms, vaccination history and possibly a sputum or throat culture.  Since symptoms of the infection can be similar to other respiratory infections, a culture of the sputum will test for the presence of the bacteria, which causes pertussis.

Complications can develop and most commonly occur in infants or very young children.

According to the CDC, about fifty percent of children under the age of one who develop pertussis are hospitalized. Complications include ear infections and convulsions from coughing so hard. Pneumonia may also develop, and in some cases become life-threatening. 

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