Dr. Murray Feingold: Adults can get whooping cough

Dr. Murray Feingold

Many people believe that whooping cough, or pertussis, just affects children. However, a significant number of adults also develop this infectious disease.

Thanks to the pertussis vaccine, which is part of a child's routine immunizations, very few children develop whooping cough.

However, the immunity decreases, making adults and adolescents susceptible to the pertussis bacteria.

The major symptom of adult pertussis is a newly acquired persistent cough. Pertussis should be considered in any adult who has a cough lasting longer than two weeks. Studies indicate that 12 percent to 32 percent of adults with a persistent cough have pertussis.

Symptoms include periodic severe bouts of coughing, but the "whoop" may not be present, or if it is, it is not as severe as the whoop present in children.

Another symptom that is commonly present in children and unusual in adults is vomiting after the severe bouts of coughing.

In between bouts of coughing the patient usually has no symptoms. The cough is non-productive and can last up to three months or even longer. Fever is usually not present but if it is, it is low grade.

Various tests can confirm the diagnosis of pertussis including identifying, from a throat culture, the bacteria that causes pertussis.

Early treatment with erythromycin can lessen the symptoms. Treatment also helps prevent the spread of pertussis.

A pertussis vaccine is now available which can help decrease the rise in pertussis in adults.

A chronic cough is present in patients with lung disease, but there are other causes of chronic cough in people with no history of pulmonary disease.

Two of the more common causes of a newly acquired chronic cough are gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, and taking angiotensin converting enzyme medications, or ACE inhibitors. They include such drugs as Zestril and Mavik.

Until they are affected, most people are unaware of how disruptive a chronic cough can be. Frequently it causes sleepless nights. It can also be disruptive to family members and co-workers.

So if you develop a cough that lasts longer than three weeks, see your doctor, because effective treatment is frequently available.

Massachusetts-based Dr. Murray Feingold is the physician in chief of The Feingold Center for Children, medical editor of WBZ-TV and WBZ radio, and president of the Genesis Fund. The Genesis Fund is a nonprofit organization that funds the care of children born with birth defects, mental retardation and genetic diseases.