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When a cough is more than just a cough

Posted October 16, 2013 in Advice Column, Downtown

It’s not even cold season, yet there’s a major cough epidemic hitting the nation. This isn’t any normal cough; it can last up to three months and lead to pneumonia, convulsions, inflammation of the brain and even death.

Pertussis, commonly known as whooping cough, is on the rise in many states, including Iowa. According to the Centers for Diseas Control, last year saw the most cases of whooping cough in the United States in more than 50 years. This year, 16 states are on track to surpass 2012 totals.

Whooping cough is a bacterial infection that starts like a cold with a runny nose and cough. After a couple weeks the cough worsens, and you experience severe coughing fits that make it difficult to breathe. The airways are so restricted that when you draw a breath between coughs, it makes a “whoop” noise, hence the name.

“The biggest risk for pertussis is in infants. Pertussis is part of the newborn series of vaccines, but children aren’t fully immunized until the last booster at 5 years old,” says Laura Delaney, M.P.A.S., PA-C, assistant professor in Des Moines University’s Physician Assistant Program. “The elderly are also more susceptible because of their weakened immune systems.”

Like the common cold, pertussis spreads through the air when someone coughs or sneezes. Delaney recommends taking the same precautions you would to prevent the spread of a cold, such as coughing into your elbow and washing your hands regularly.

With early recognition, whooping cough can be treated with antibiotics. However, antibiotics only make you noncontagious; they don’t lessen the cough. And symptoms may not show up for up to 10 days, the time when you’re most contagious. This makes whooping cough hard to detect and even harder to contain. Often, an entire household is treated to prevent the spread of the disease.

Vaccination remains the best defense against whooping cough. It is recommended you have a diphtheria/tetanus/pertussis (DTaP) shot every 10 years. Pregnant women in their third trimester must get immunized for pertussis so they don’t pass it onto their child. The vaccination is also recommended for fathers and grandparents.

“As adults, we need to be cognizant of the fact that it’s dangerous to infants and protect them by getting immunized. If you haven’t been immunized, seek the advice of your health care provider,” advises Delaney.

Information provided by Des Moines University Clinic, 3200 Grand Ave., 271-1700.

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