Health officials have been warning about the spread of respiratory illnesses like RSV, COVID-19 and flu this winter season, but there's another highly contagious disease causing concern in the eastern U.S.
The respiratory illness is known as whooping cough or pertussis, and health departments in Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, and Suffolk County, New York, have both recently alerted the public of outbreaks within their respective schools.
Several cases in the Stroudsburg area were confirmed among students, prompting the school district there to send a message of advice to parents.
And Suffolk County said the majority of its 108 cases are vaccinated school-aged kids and their parents, meaning they're more protected against serious symptoms. The county said it wasn't aware of any hospitalizations related to the outbreak as of Dec. 30.
Though pertussis has similarities with the other circulating illnesses, it has some serious differences. For example, anyone living in a household where a case has been reported is advised to take antibiotics to prevent further spread, hence the warnings from the two health departments.
"With so many respiratory illnesses currently circulating, some for which there are no treatment, we wanted to make sure that parents know that pertussis, also called whooping cough, can be treated with antibiotics if diagnosed early," Suffolk County Health Commissioner Dr. Gregson Pigott said. "Whooping cough can be very serious for infants too young to be vaccinated, which is why we are alerting both medical providers and the public that this illness is circulating."
Pertussis is caused by a Bordetella pertussis bacteria that attaches to the lining of the upper respiratory system, where it releases toxins that cause airways to swell, according to CDC.
A sick person can easily spread the bacteria to another person when they release small disease particles into the air, such as by coughing or sneezing. This contagiousness is evident from the very start of symptoms to at least two weeks after coughing starts, as well as for those who don't even know they have it.
But a person who does have symptoms will likely think it's a common cold — and so do doctors, who often don't suspect or diagnose the disease until more severe symptoms appear one to two weeks later. These symptoms can include rapid and uncontrollable coughing fits lasting up to 10 weeks, the CDC says.
However, babies who contract whooping cough often don't cough at all. Instead, they turn blue or struggle to breathe, and about one-third of those under 1 year old will need hospital care to fight the disease, according to the CDC. Nearly two-thirds will exhibit apnea — or life-threatening pauses in breathing — while 1 in 5 will get pneumonia. Other babies will have convulsions or encephalopathy, and 1 in 100 die from the illness.
Health departments are supposed to report pertussis cases to the CDC, but limitations in diagnostics leave many cases undiagnosed and therefore unreported. Experts say this and pandemic-era mandates are likely why pertussis case numbers from 2020 to 2022 are lower across the U.S. than they were in 2019 and before. Still, the number of pertussis cases reported in 2023 was more than double that of 2022, pushing officials to remind the public of prevention efforts.
Besides antibiotics, the CDC says the best way to prevent or lessen the severity of pertussis is by getting the vaccine.
There are currently two options for vaccines: the DTaP for children under 7, and the Tdap for those above 7. The latter can also be given to pregnant women in their third trimester to help pass antibodies to their baby early in life, the CDC says.
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