What you should know about whooping cough - Wyoming Medical Center

What you should know about whooping cough

By Kristy Bleizeffer Mar 19, 2014

The Casper-Natrona County Health Department has confirmed a second case of pertussis – also known as whooping cough –at a Natrona County school. While it is a contagious disease that can lead to severe symptoms, particularly in infants, this is not an outbreak, says Dr. Mark Dowell, an infectious disease doctor at Wyoming Medical Center.

Dr. Dowell, who is also the Natrona County Health Officer, sat down with The Pulse to tell you what you need to know.

The Pulse: What is pertussis?

Dr. Dowell: Pertussis, or whooping cough, is a contagious disease caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis. It starts off as a non-specific illness with low-grade fever, muscle aches and joint aches, maybe a sore throat. It then develops into a classic cough which crescendos into a characteristic “whoop.” The cough can become severe enough that the person vomits. It can be very severe in infants.

The Pulse: Two cases of whooping cough have been confirmed at two separate schools – Cottonwood Elementary and University Park Elementary. Is that the total number of cases in the county?

Dr. Dowell: Probably in the county, we’ve had 4 to 6 total cases, but not all have been proven. Because there is what’s called RSV – Respiratory Syncytial Virus – going around the community like crazy, there’s a tendency to over and under diagnosis whooping cough.

One of the index cases of whooping cough was in a developmentally delayed child who was not immunized at all and then a sibling got it, who had not been fully immunized either. These cases are isolated, they are not spreading. They’re in different schools. This is not an outbreak.

The Pulse: How do RSV and whooping cough differ?

Dr. Dowell: Whooping cough is a very characteristic cough. It’s “whooping,” literally. Kids tend to be a little sicker with whooping cough and RSV generally is in the very young ones – a few months old to younger children, 5 to 6 or younger.

The Pulse: Does Natrona County typically have a few cases of whooping cough each year?

Dr. Dowell: We haven’t seen it much in this county, but it’s certainly common to hear about a few cases every year. Again, it underscores the need to vaccinate your children. It can, on occasion, lead to long-term lung issues – not often, but sometimes.

It underscores the risk of having children who are not immunized or who are not fully immunized in schools and exposing other children to them. The vaccines are very protective. They are not always 100 percent, but no vaccine is, but they are really very effective.

The Pulse: Are adults also at risk?

Dr. Dowell: Pertussis in adults is quite severe many times and dangerous, but not always. When you have children with whooping cough, and when they are not immunized, it puts adults at risk. Because the protection from the vaccine wanes over time, you have adults who are more susceptible because their vaccine from childhood has potentially worn off.

Adults typically don’t think about getting the vaccine again. In Wyoming Medical Center’s Emergency Room, we have changed from a straight tetanus shot to what is called Tdap – which contains the whooping cough in it along with tetanus. So we get adults when they come into the ER. I think physicians tend to forget to give that to adults.

The Pulse: When should adults get a Tdap?

Dr. Dowell: They can get it now.

They claim an adult should get a tetanus shot every 10 years, although that has not been well studied. If you’re going to get a tetanus shot every 10 years, you may as well get the Tdap.

The Pulse: Should parents be worried about these whooping cough cases in the schools?

Dr. Dowell: Having children in the school system myself, I am not panicked at all. My children are up to date on their immunizations. The take-home message is to contact your healthcare provider if your child is developing a characteristic cough like a whoop. And if anybody wants to hear it, you can google it or you can You Tube it and I’m sure you can find it and listen to what that cough sounds like.

It just underscores the need to immunize your children – and adults actually.

The Casper-Natrona County Health Department, 475 S. Spruce St., has pertussis vaccine available for both children and adults. Call them at 235-9340 for an appointment or drop in between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Professional headshot of

Mark Dowell M.D.

Dr. Dowell is board certified in infectious disease and is the medical director of Infectious Disease at Wyoming Medical Center. He practices at Rocky Mountain Infectious Diseases.