It sounds like a disease that should have been eradicated centuries ago, but whooping cough is here at full tilt.
The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that this could be the worst outbreak of the illness in the United States in more than 50 years. But do youhave to worry? To find out, we turned to Thomas Clark, M.D., a medical epidemiologist at the CDC.
Whopping cough—also known as pertussis—is a highly contagious respiratory disease that’s caused by a bacterial infection. It triggers uncontrollable coughing, which creates a “whooping” sound as you gasp for breath, explains Dr. Clark. And while pertussis most commonly affects infants and young children, adults need to be cautious of the disease, too, Dr. Clark warns.
Nearly 18,000 cases of the disease have been reported nationwide to the CDC in 2012 so far, which is more than twice as may as were reported at this time last year. “Twenty-five percent of those reported cases are in people over the age of 20,” Dr. Clark says. (Want more up-to-date health news? Get the latest tips from Men’s Health sent straight to your inbox by signing up for our free Daily Dose newsletter.)
Experts believe the main cause behind the outbreak is the waning protection of the vaccine. See, children receive several vaccines that protect against diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis. But over time, that protection wears off. It’s recommended that adults receive one dose of the Tdap vaccine to protect themselves again, says Dr. Clark—but most adults don’t get it. Less than 10 percent of adults are vaccinated, compared to 70 percent of kids.
“The disease is highly transmissible,” Dr. Clark says. “If the vaccine’s protection has worn off or people never got vaccinated, it spreads like wildfire through a population.” And that’s exactly what has happened in states like Wisconsin and Washington, which have the highest incidences of the disease. However, 37 states total have reported increased outbreaks compared to last year. (See how your state compares to the national average of whopping cough incidences with this CDC chart.)
“Pertussis isn’t just a nuisance,” says Dr. Clark. “It can cause severe and prolonged complications. Coughing fits can break ribs, induce vomiting, and cause fatigue.” In infants and young children, it can cause death. Pertussis can often start out with the same symptoms as a bad cold. But if you have a horrible cough, go see a doctor, he says. When caught early enough, whopping cough can be treated with an antibiotic like erythromycin and won’t be as likely to spread to others. (For more easy ways to stay fit and healthy, read The 20 Best Health Tips of All Time.)