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Experts say whooping cough can be deadly for infants, but vaccines can help keep them safe.
Pertussis — also known as whooping cough — is a respiratory bacteria that spreads via coughing, according to Dr. Rosemary Olivero, an infectious disease specialist at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital.
According to the Department of Health and Human Services, pertussis has been on the rise in Michigan over the past 10 years.
Olivero told News 8 that most school-aged children, teenagers and adults will demonstrate classic symptoms of the illness.
“The more classic whooping cough … is generally going to be several coughs in a row, followed by them trying to catch their breath, which makes a whooping sound,” Olivero said. “That can then repeat itself.”
Sometimes, Olivero said, people will cough so hard that they vomit.
But the symptoms begin much more subtly.
“Not everybody who develops whooping cough is going to start off with the whoop,” she said. “The very early phase, frustratingly, looks just like the common cold.”
Olivero told News 8 that if the whooping cough is not diagnosed and treated in time, it can last for months — hence the name “100-day cough.”
For infants, however, the disease can look different — and it can be more serious.
“Little babies actually don’t often generate the whoop,” Olivero said.
Infants with pertussis will often develop a repetitive cough that can be so forceful that their breathing will pause after coughing spells, according to Olivero.
These breathing pauses can be “extremely dangerous,” she said. Sometimes, babies can even turn blue from the pauses, which Olivero described as a “very concerning” situation that merits calling an ambulance.
“Infants are the ones who are at higher risk for coming to the hospital and actually dying from pertussis,” she said.
To protect babies, there is a multilayered approach, Olivero said. Infants following the routine immunization schedule will get their first dose of the Tdap vaccine — which protects against pertussis, among other diseases — at around 2 months old.
But Olivero told News 8 that sometimes, infants are exposed to whooping cough before the 2-month mark.
That’s why the people who will be around the baby frequently should also get the Tdap vaccine, according to Olivero.
“We call it a cocoon approach,” she said.
Olivero also told News 8 that pregnant women should get a dose of the Tdap vaccine in their third trimester.
“It will boost their immunity against pertussis … and that’s also a period of time where the pregnant woman is also going to transfer her antibodies across the placenta into the baby’s bloodstream,” she said.
According to Olivero, there’s a relationship between vaccination rates and whooping cough.
“The less vaccine we see in the general population, and especially children, the more cases of pertussis we are going to see,” she said.