Whooping cough cases on the rise: What to know about symptoms, vaccines, more

Close up of a woman coughing in her hands

This article is from The Sault News. Read more here.

Cases of whooping cough are popping up throughout the country and current case counts are nearly three times higher than at this time last year, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

There have been 4,864 cases of pertussis, or whooping cough, reported throughout the United States in 2024 so far, which is up from the 1,746 cases reported through the same week in 2023, according to the CDC.

The Lexington-Fayette County Health Department in Kentucky recently declared the respiratory illness in outbreak status after nine total cases have been confirmed in the area since late April.

Health officials in Oregon are also concerned about a sharp increase in cases of whooping cough and are encouraging vaccination against the disease. The Oregon Health Authority said in a notice last Thursday that as of May 29, there have been 178 cases of whooping cough reported to them in 2024 from nine counties.

That represents a 770% increase from the 20 cases reported by that date in 2023, according to the OHA, but the numbers fall in line with those seen during similar time frames in 2018 and 2019.

“Our concern is with how quickly we jumped to such a high number of pertussis cases, which tell us that the disease is doing what it does best: spreading fast and taking a greater toll on undervaccinated persons,” Paul Cieslak, OHA’s medical director for communicable diseases and immunizations, said in the notice.

Here’s what you need to know about the illness, including the symptoms and vaccine information.

What is whooping cough?

According to the CDC, whooping cough is a respiratory illness caused by a type of bacteria called Bordetella pertussis.

The disease, only found in humans, occurs when whooping cough bacteria attach to the cilia that line part of the upper respiratory system. This bacteria then releases toxins, which damage the cilia and cause airways to swell, according to the CDC.

What are the symptoms of whooping cough?

The CDC says that it usually takes 5 to 10 days for symptoms to appear after exposure to the bacteria, and sometimes symptoms don’t develop for as long as three weeks.

Early symptoms of whooping cough appear similar to a common cold, according to the CDC, and can last for one to two weeks. These symptoms include:

  • Runny or stuffed up nose
  • Low-grade fever (less than 100.4℉)
  • Mild, occasional cough

One to two weeks after the first symptoms start, people may develop paroxysms, or coughing fits, that usually last one to six weeks but can last up to 10 weeks. These coughing fits generally get worse and become more common as the illness continues, according to the CDC.

According to the agency, many babies with whooping cough don’t cough at all, but instead develop apnea, or life-threatening pauses in breathing.

The CDC recommends seeing a healthcare provider if you or your child are coughing violently, and to seek immediate care for breathing difficulties.

Is there a whooping cough vaccine?

According to the CDC, two kinds of vaccines are available that help prevent whooping cough, both of which also provide protection against other diseases:

  • Diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (DTaP) vaccines
  • Tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis (Tdap) vaccines

The CDC says babies and children younger than 7 years old receive DTaP, while older children and adults receive Tdap. The agency recommends whooping cough vaccination for all babies and children, preteens and pregnant women.

Adults who have never received one should also get a Tdap shot, according to the CDC.

How does whooping cough spread?

The CDC says that the bacteria that cause whooping cough spread easily from person to person through the air.

When a person with whooping cough sneezes or coughs, they release small particles with the bacteria in them, which other people can breathe in.

People can spread the bacteria from the start of symptoms and for at least two weeks after coughing begins, according to the CDC. Taking antibiotics early in the illness may shorten the amount of time someone is contagious, the agency says.

How is whooping cough diagnosed and treated?

The CDC says that whooping cough can be difficult to diagnose because the signs and symptoms are similar to other respiratory illnesses.

Healthcare providers can diagnose whooping cough by doing the following:

  • History of typical signs and symptoms
  • Physical exam
  • Laboratory test of a mucus sample from the back of the throat
  • Blood test

Healthcare providers generally treat the illness with antibiotics, and further treatment in the hospital may be needed if symptoms are serious, according to the CDC.

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You’ve got questions. That’s a good thing.

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