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Mommy Medicine: Protecting your family from pertussis

Mommy Medicine: Protecting your family from pertussis

Estimated read time: 3-4 minutes

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SALT LAKE CITY — The world of health and medicine can be confusing to many parents. But Nurse Suzy is here to help clarify some of the issues that are important to you and your family.

This week's question deals with the recent outbreak of pertussis among adults.


I've been hearing a lot about pertussis lately and how dangerous it can be. Is it really that dangerous? If so, how can I protect my family from it? Also, what are the signs and symptoms I should watch for and when should I or my child see a doctor? Answer:

Pertussis, or Whooping Cough, is a highly contagious bacterial disease which causes uncontrollable, violent coughing. The coughing can make it hard to breathe. A deep "whooping" sound is often heard when the patient tries to take a breath.

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Currently, there are several reported cases of whooping cough in Utah children and adults. Diagnosis is usually based on symptoms. However, when symptoms are not obvious pertussis may be difficult to diagnose. It usually is associated with a cold or upper respiratory infection. When diagnosed, pertussis can last up to six weeks, meaning you can have a constant cough for six weeks and experience slow improvement.

Pertussis is a serious disease which can cause permanent disability in infants, and even death. It is a very dangerous respiratory infection for adults as well. Patients will cough so violently they can pass out, vomit, experience muscle spasms or even lung damage. If started early enough, antibiotics such as erythromycin can make the symptoms go away more quickly. Unfortunately, most patients are diagnosed too late, when antibiotics aren't very effective. Medications can help reduce the patient's ability to spread the disease to others.


While whooping cough can affect people of any age, the disease was most common in infants and young children before vaccines were available. Now that most children are immunized before entering school, the higher percentage of cases is seen among adolescents and adults. In Utah, for a variety of reasons, we have one of the lowest vaccination rates in the country, and this has produced recent outbreaks like measles and whooping cough.

The most important way to protect you or your children from becoming infected with pertussis is to be vaccinated. Some adults have had their first immunizations but have never gone back for the booster and therefore could be more likely to contract pertussis. If you have any of the symptoms listed above, please contact your physician or the public health department.

You can find more information on this subject through the Utah Public Health Department' Bureau of Epidemiology web page.


Suzanne Carlile, "Nurse Suzy," has been a nurse since 1982. Her main focus of nursing is Critical Care areas and Nursing Education. She holds a master's degree in nursing, is a Certified Emergency Nurse, and a member of NNSDO Intermountain West Chapter.

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