Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, is a highly contagious infection of the lungs and airways by the bacteria, Bordetella pertussis. It is characterized by severe coughing spells that may end in a “whoop” sound.
There is a common perception that pertussis is a childhood disease. However, whooping cough can affect people of all ages. Therefore adults can pass it to children who are particularly at risk of developing potentially life-threatening complications.
Therefore the adolescents and adults in your family should get their Tdap (tetanus toxoid, reduced diphtheria toxoid and acellular pertussis antigens) vaccine, which is available at private clinics and hospitals. It is important to get your booster vaccine at least two weeks before contact with an infant, to allow time for immunity to develop. Being immunised against whooping cough will create a ‘cocoon’ protection in your family to shield the little ones from the grips of this disease.
Whooping Cough In Adults
Whooping cough in adults is actually not so rare. Even those who received a pertussis (DTaP) vaccine in childhood may no longer be protected, as the immunity from the vaccine has been shown to wane over time.
This could cause a rise of whooping cough cases in adults and put more children at risk of contracting whooping cough from adults.
Furthermore, it is very difficult to tell if the adult with a prolonged cough has pertussis or not. This is mainly because the symptoms of whooping cough in adults and adolescents do not have the characteristic whoop. Therefore whooping cough in adults often goes untreated and may also be misdiagnosed as other respiratory disorders, such as asthma or bronchitis.
A majority of adults with whooping cough will only experience a prolonged hacking cough for a few weeks that is at most irritating to their daily lives. However, in some rare cases, these adults may develop complications such as difficulty sleeping, nosebleeds, and pneumonia.
Infecting The Young
While the infection can still cause complications in adults, it is ultimately the young who suffer.
A staggering majority of infants who develop whooping cough will get it from the adults around them who are unknowingly spreading the infection through the air via breathing, talking, coughing, or sneezing. In fact according to the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) 30 to 40% of infants who contract whooping actually get it from their mothers.
Infants with whooping cough may develop long and excessive coughing spells that can be very serious. These spells can lead to bouts of vomiting, and some infants may even turn blue due to lack of oxygen caused by the severity of coughing spells.
Furthermore in infants, complications from whooping cough are more severe than those in adults, and are potentially life-threatening. They may include ear infections, pneumonia, dehydration, seizures, brain damage, temporary pauses in breathing, or rib fractures. Some infants may even stop breathing altogether.
As a result infants, especially those under 6 months of age, are more likely to be hospitalised as a result of whooping cough.
Protective Cocoon For Babies
Infants can only get their first dose of the DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis) immunisation at 2 months. However, whooping cough could strike infants before they can get their first dose.
Hence, one of the best ways to prevent whooping cough in infants is to have adults maintain immunity against the infection.
The Tdap (tetanus toxoid, reduced diphtheria toxoid and acellular pertussis antigens) vaccine is available to individuals ranging from 15 to 64 years.
It is therefore recommended that all members of the family, above 15 years, get their Tdap immunisation to maintain protection against whooping cough for themselves and more importantly to create a protective ‘cocoon’ effect for the infant(s) around them.
Even pregnant women are recommended to receive the Tdap vaccine in late pregnancy to maximize the immunity passed to new-borns.