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Whooping Cough (Pertussis)

Pertussis, also know as whooping cough, is a contagious respiratory disease that is particularly harmful to babies. Snohomish County was “ground zero” for the Washington State pertussis epidemic of 2012. 

The Snohomish Health District responded by promoting vaccination via 20 free vaccination clinics, pharmacy partnerships, a postcard mailed to every county residence, and through our usual disease surveillance and response work ramped up to address the epidemic. Thanks to these and other efforts, almost 10,000 more people were vaccinated in 2012 compared to the previous year.

Whooping cough in pregnant women and babies

Women are now advised to get vaccinated against pertussis with each pregnancy since protection wears off over time. The only death in Snohomish County was a Lake Stevens baby whose mother had pertussis while pregnant. Almost half the babies diagnosed with pertussis in 2012 needed to be hospitalized.

Even though whooping cough is no longer at epidemic levels, the disease is always a threat to infants and is still present in our community. When a case is confirmed at a school or daycare, we send letters home to notify parents to watch for symptoms and make sure vaccinations are up to date.

Get vaccinated for whooping cough

The Snohomish Health District urges all teens and adults, especially those who have contact with infants, to get vaccinated against this preventable disease. A combination shot, Tdap for adults and DTaP for children, protects against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis. For children and teens, vaccination is required for school attendance in Washington State. Children are required to get a five-shot series of DtaP by age 7 and a booster shot (Tdap) at age 11.

Pertussis symptoms

Pertussis spreads easily by coughing and sneezing. It can take up to 3 weeks for symptoms to appear, and the disease starts off like any cold, with a runny nose, sneezing, and a mild cough. After a week or so, the cough progresses into coughing fits and spasms. Coughing fits can be so severe they end in vomiting or a “whooping” sound as you gasp for air. This cough can last for weeks.

Many adults and teens get a milder — but still long-lasting — form of the illness. Adults are often unaware they have pertussis and don’t seek treatment. As a result, family members and caregivers are a common cause of the illness in babies. 

Antibiotics are used to treat pertussis. During this time, you or your children should remain at home to reduce the spread of the disease. If you have a cough, you should avoid being around infants, wash your hands frequently, and cover your cough .

Did you know?

It is recommended that pregnant women receive a Tdap vaccine during the third trimester of each pregnancy.  Maternal antibodies pass through the placenta and protect newborns until they can receive vaccines to protect them from pertussis (whooping cough).