Pertussis, also known as whooping cough, is an extremely contagious bacterial infection that can lead to severe, sometimes life-threatening health problems, such as exacerbation of chronic medical conditions — including asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
Fall is one of the times of year that pertussis peaks in North America. Coinciding with COPD Awareness Month in November, it’s a good time to learn about your pertussis risk and that vaccination can help you to stay healthy. Here’s what to know:
What are the symptoms of pertussis? Pertussis usually begins with cold-like symptoms. It’s not until the disease progresses in severity that it can differentiate itself from other respiratory illnesses. After a week or two, a harsh repetitive cough may develop, sometimes accompanied by a “whooping” sound that happens when all the air is gone from your lungs and you inhale as you cough. These coughing spells, which can be so intense they can even break ribs, will often result in loss of bladder control, vomiting and exhaustion, light-headedness and headaches. The lips and areas around the lips may even turn blue due to lack of oxygen.
When should I see a doctor? Treatment for pertussis is easily available and highly encouraged. If started early, it can help reduce the severity and duration of illness and reduce the risk of complications. Once a diagnosis is made or suspected exposure has been determined, you should start on antibiotics immediately.
More than a childhood disease
Who is impacted? Pertussis is often thought of as a childhood disease, however it also impacts adults. Those with underlying lung disease need to be especially careful, as pertussis can worsen these diseases to the degree that patients may become hospitalized, even fighting for their lives.
How can I stay healthy? According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the best way to protect against pertussis is by getting vaccinated. Childhood immunization reduces the risk of catching pertussis and there’s a vaccine for adults as well. Unfortunately, only 30% of U.S. adults received a pertussis vaccine in the past 10 years, leaving many people vulnerable. Tdap, which protects against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis, is covered free-of-charge by most insurance plans. Recommended for people of all ages in the United States, it’s especially important for high-risk adults, such as those with asthma and COPD, and for older adults who will be in contact with babies less than 12 months old. Talk to your physician to find out if you are up to date on vaccination for pertussis.
What other prevention measures can I take? Like many other infectious illnesses, having good health habits can reduce your chances of becoming ill with pertussis. Properly wash your hands with soap and water often, especially if you come into contact with an individual with a respiratory infection. Always cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing and clean your hands afterward. Staying home when you’re sick will help prevent the spread of infectious respiratory diseases.
I have a chronic lung disease, what else should I know? While anyone can get pertussis, adults living with asthma are at four times greater risk of infection and complications. For those with COPD, symptoms often worsen after a respiratory infection. Asthma and COPD both cause your airways in your lungs to swell, and pertussis can further increase airway swelling making breathing difficult. Speak with your healthcare provider to ensure your adult vaccinations are up to date. For more tools and resources, visit Lung.org/Pertussis.