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Pertussis or Whooping Cough in Children

Pediatrics and Child Health

Pertussis, better known to most of us as whooping cough, is a bacterial infection affecting the respiratory system. It is characterized by the whooping sound that occurs upon inspiration before a cough. At the onset, pertussis is much like any other common cold with a runny nose, sneezing, low grade fever and an occasional cough. After about a week, sudden bursts or paroxysms of coughing occur and this is usually when the disease is diagnosed.

Pertussis: What it Looks Like

Pertussis or whooping cough can last for several weeks. After about three to four weeks the episodes of spasmodic coughing begin to lessen in frequency and severity. At its worst though, pertussis is very stressful to a small child and to the parents as well. Coughing may become so severe that the child may become blue or cyanotic due to lack of oxygen. As a child becomes frightened by this, the condition only worsens. The paroxysms of coughing are usually worse at night.

A child with pertussis may seem perfectly healthy between episodes of coughing although they are generally exhausted and weakened from the cough. They may vomit after one of these episodes. The whooping sound upon inspiration (or breathing in) is due to the thick mucus blocking the airway and this is also the cause of cough and resulting vomiting. The doctor may take a swab of nasal secretions to test for pertussis in order to obtain a true diagnosis.

Pertussis: How your Child Catches It

Pertussis is highly contagious and can be spread by direct contact or by breathing in droplets. This occurs when there is contact with a person infected with pertussis that has respiratory secretions on their hands, passes it on to the child’s hands and then the child touches his own mouth or nose. When an infected person coughs or sneezes the child may breathe in tiny droplets in the air causing infection.

Pertussis Prevention and Treatment

Pertussis can be prevented with a vaccine and this is often routinely given to infants and young children. The DPT (diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus) vaccine does lose it’s potency to prevent pertussis after several years though, so pertussis is most commonly seen in teens and adults and children that have not been immunized. Infants and young children with older siblings that had adverse reactions to the DPT vaccine are often kept from receiving it by their medical caregiver or by their parents and may contract whooping cough. If your child contracts pertussis the doctor will probably prescribe antibiotics.

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