The return of whooping cough is nothing to sneeze at

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is seeing an increase in the number of whooping cough illness in 2012.

Whooping cough is a disease also known as pertussis. It is a bacterial infection that causes a deep cough in children. It makes children cough very long and very hard. In fact, when they can finally catch their breath, they make a "whoop" sound.

During the first half of 2012, outbreaks have been reported in more than half of states, and Washington declared a pertussis epidemic in April. There have been nine deaths in the more than 17,000 cases this year.

Whooping cough is most severe for babies. More than half of babies younger than one year old who get the disease must be hospitalized. About one in four infants with whooping cough get pneumonia. Pneumonia is a form of lung infection. Whooping cough can be deadly for one or two infants per 100 who are hospitalized.

The second highest rates of disease are in children 7 through 10. Rates are also increasing in adolescents 13 and 14 years of age.

Vaccinating kids is the most important defense against whooping cough. But whooping cough can affect adults, too. Health experts say adults should be getting regular shots to protect against it.

Stacey Martin is an epidemiologist with the CDC. She said there is good news about whooping cough. She said that 95 percent of children in the United States are vaccinated. The bad news is that only 10 percent of adults are vaccinated.

The CDC offers guidelines for vaccinations. Children need five doses of the whooping cough vaccination by age 6 to be fully protected. They may need another booster in their teens. The CDC also has guidelines for adults. Adults should get at least one dose of the combined tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis vaccine. The Infectious Diseases Society of America recommends getting the shot once every 10 years.

How do you know if you have whooping cough?

To protect yourself against whooping cough, you need to know the symptoms. Whooping cough starts like the common cold. You would have a runny nose or congestion. Sneezing and maybe a mild cough or fever are also early signs of whooping cough. But after one or two weeks, severe coughing can begin.

Unlike the common cold, whooping cough can become a series of coughing fits. These fits can last for weeks. Whooping cough can cause violent and rapid coughing. In infants, the cough can be minimal or not even there.

How whooping cough spreads

People with whooping cough usually spread the disease by coughing or sneezing. This is more dangerous when they are close to other people. Those people may breathe in the whooping cough bacteria.

Many infants with whooping cough are infected by their parents or older siblings. They may also get whooping cough from other caregivers. These relatives and caregivers might not even know they have the disease.

Preventing whooping cough

The best way to prevent whooping cough is to get vaccinated. Here are the CDC suggestions for whooping cough vaccinations:

For infants and children:

In the United States, the suggested whooping cough vaccine for children is called a DTaP. This is a safe and effective vaccine. It protects children against three diseases: diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis. For maximum protection against whooping cough, children need five DTaP shots.

The first three shots are given at two, four, and six months of age. The fourth shot is given at 15 through 18 months of age. A fifth shot is given when a child enters school, at 4 to 6 years old.

For preteens and teens:

Vaccine protection for pertussis, tetanus, and diphtheria gets less with time. You should take your children go for a regular checkup when they are 11 or 12. At that time, they should get a booster vaccine. This vaccine is called Tdap.

For pregnant women:

Pregnant women who have not been previously vaccinated with Tdap should get one dose. This dose of Tdap should be given during the third trimester or late second trimester.

For adults:

The easiest thing for adults is to get Tdap instead of their next tetanus booster. The Td shot (a booster) is suggested for adults every 10 years. The dose of Tdap can be given earlier than the 10-year mark. Adults should talk to a healthcare provider about what's best for them.