Whooping cough is back: what it is and in which cases it is more serious

Whooping cough is back: what it is and in which cases it is more serious


It sounds like a disease of the past, but the numerous outbreaks of whooping cough recorded since the beginning of the year in different parts of the country have brought it back to the present. Also called whooping cough, it is a tremendously contagious respiratory pathology, “which can be very dangerous and even fatal in the case of smaller babies,” warns the Spanish Association of Pediatrics (AEP). In fact, four out of every ten patients affected by this notifiable disease, caused by the Bordetella pertussis bacteria, are less than one year old, 15% are adolescents and 13% adults.

«In the vast majority of cases, contagion, which occurs through direct contact with respiratory secretions or through droplets of saliva from the sick person, comes from an adult who lives with the baby. Therefore, be very careful with grandparents or parents who cough,” warns Dr. Lucía Galán. In adolescents and adults, however, it is usually a mild pathology.

Although the number of severe cases of whooping cough has decreased significantly since a few years ago it was recommended to immunize pregnant women to protect newborns from the complications of this disease during their first weeks of life – the first dose of the vaccine is given after two months –, from time to time new outbreaks appear, such as those detected in recent weeks in towns and schools in Castilla-La Mancha, Catalonia, the Basque Country, Aragon or Madrid. “It is not at all strange, this disease maintains a pattern of epidemic waves that repeats itself every three to five years and now we are in one of them,” the experts argue.

According to data from the latest surveillance report on communicable diseases that must be notified by the Carlos III Health Institute, in the last week of January alone a total of 482 cases were detected, while in the same period of the previous year only seven were recorded. Epidemiology experts insist that the appearance of these outbreaks – with more than a hundred people affected in some of them – draws a lot of attention, but it is nothing out of the ordinary for this type of pathology. «We are seeing a kind of rebound effect of some diseases linked to childhood that had been stopped by the effect of the pandemic to a greater or lesser extent; from an increase in cases of asthma, bronchitis, pneumonia or whooping cough itself,” they add.

In schools and institutes

Whooping cough is especially contagious, so it is not surprising that it causes outbreaks as soon as a person falls ill, especially in the environment of schools and institutes. Vaccination (at 2, 4 and 11 months and a booster dose at 6 years) is the best way to prevent infection and complications of this pathology, but it also has its limitations since its protection fades with age. pass of the time. In this sense, the Spanish Association of Pediatrics has proposed adding a new booster dose against this disease between 12 and 14 years of age, in addition to vaccinating adults who work with young children to guarantee greater immunity.

Symptoms and treatment

“The evolution of whooping cough is divided into two phases: catarrhal (up to 2 weeks) and paroxysmal (approximately 4 to 6 weeks),” says Dr. Galán in ‘The great book of Lucía, my pediatrician’ (Ed. Planet). The first is characterized by symptoms similar to those of a common cold with runny nose, nasal congestion, cough, fever… «As the days go by, the cough worsens and acquires a very peculiar sound. It comes in bursts. That is, in continuous accesses with hardly any time to catch air. Hence, at the end it emits a sound similar to a beep, a very characteristic ‘rooster’. After these coughing attacks, children are exhausted and have little activity. “Complications in the little ones can be significant: otitis media, pneumonia, respiratory failure, encephalopathy, seizures, respiratory arrest (apnea) and even death in cases of infants under two months,” lists the specialist.

Other almost ‘forgotten’ diseases

  • Diphtheria:

    It is a very rare pathology, but sometimes the bacteria that causes this respiratory infection finds a place to sneak in, especially in small pockets of unvaccinated people. A 6-year-old boy from Olot (Girona) died in 2015 due to complications derived from this disease, from which he was not immunized.

  • Tetanus:

    Although in our country there are only about ten cases a year, it must be kept in mind that this disease can end the life of the patient if they are not vaccinated.

  • Chickenpox:

    It is a childhood pathology caused by a virus, although it can be suffered at any age. Every year, about 100,000 cases are reported in Spain, four times fewer than those registered before the vaccine became widespread.

  • Measles:

    This disease, also of viral origin, has practically been eradicated in our country due to immunization, but from time to time small outbreaks arise associated with anti-vaccine communities.

  • Tuberculosis:

    Caused by a bacteria, it is still considered an endemic disease in certain areas of our country, although it is now much more controlled. Every year about 4,000 new cases are registered in Spain.

Regarding treatment, whooping cough is usually treated with a specific oral antibiotic (erythromycin or azithromyzine) to combat the infections that accompany the disease.


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