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Whooping cough cases prompt public health response

Dec. 3, 2019 – With multiple cases of whooping cough confirmed in Oak Park, local public health officials are urging everyone to take steps to help prevent further spread of the contagious respiratory illness.

Six cases of the illness – formally named pertussis – have been confirmed so far, four cases at Oak Park and River Forest High School and two cases in the community. The risk could remain for several months, officials say, since the highly infectious illness is easily transmitted through coughing and sneezing.

The best way to prevent pertussis is to get vaccinated, but practicing good hygiene also can help prevent its spread, according to Oak Park Public Health Department Director Mike Charley.

“Anyone who has been vaccinated as part of their routine wellness regime is much less likely to be at risk for contracting the illness,” Charley said. “But basic steps like covering your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze, washing your hands often and staying at home if you are sick can be very effective in preventing the spread of whooping cough and other illness, including cold and flu.”

The vaccine for pertussis typically is part of the DTaP combination vaccine given to babies and young children that also helps protect against diphtheria and tetanus. But since the vaccine protection can fade with time, doctors recommend that preteens get the booster dose known as Tdap at about 11 or 12 years old.

But even fully vaccinated adults can get pertussis, so they should check with their healthcare providers about vaccination – especially if caring for babies. Adults who have never been vaccinated also should ask their doctors about getting the Tdap vaccine, officials say.

Whooping cough can be a serious disease, lasting up to 10 weeks or more, causing violent coughing fits. The illness can be severe, even deadly, especially for babies under six months old who are too young to be well protected by vaccines.

Like many respiratory illnesses, pertussis spreads by coughing and sneezing while in close contact with others who then breathe in the bacteria. The Oak Park Health Department recommends practicing good hygiene to prevent the spread of respiratory illnesses, including the following tips:

  • Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze
  • Put used tissue in a waste basket
  • Cough or sneeze into your upper sleeve or elbow, not your hands, if you don’t have a tissue
  • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds
  • Use an alcohol-based hand rub if soap and water are not available
  • Stay home if sick

Symptoms usually appear five-to 10-days after exposure, but can take as long as 21 days. The first symptoms are similar to those of a common cold – a runny nose, sneezing, low-grade fever and a mild, occasional cough.

The cough gradually becomes severe and, after one to two weeks, the patient has spasmodic bursts of numerous, rapid coughs. The characteristic high-pitched whoop, which is more common in children, comes from breathing in after a coughing episode.

During a severe coughing attack, the person may turn blue, vomit and become exhausted, while appearing normal between coughing attacks.

Coughing attacks, which may persist for as long as 100 days, tend to occur more frequently at night and may increase in frequency for a couple of weeks, remain at the same level for two-to three-weeks, and then gradually decrease.

Cough medicines usually do not help, officials say. Recovery is gradual, but coughing episodes can recur for months after the onset of pertussis.

Anyone experiencing any of the symptoms is urged to visit a medical services provider for an evaluation, testing and/or treatment.

More information on pertussis is posted at online with the Centers for Control and the Illinois Department of Public Health.