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Pertussis In Children

What do I need to know about pertussis in children?

Pertussis is an infection of the nose, throat, and lungs. It is also called whooping cough. Your child's air passages narrow and get plugged with thick mucus. This may cause him to have coughing spells. Anyone can have pertussis, but it is most serious in babies and young children. A baby may get pertussis before he is old enough to get the shots to prevent the infection. Pertussis is caused by bacteria. It is easily spread in the air when someone with pertussis coughs or sneezes.

What are the signs and symptoms of pertussis in children?

It may take 3 to 21 days for your child to get pertussis after contact with the bacteria. This time is called the incubation period. Pertussis begins like a cold. After a coughing spell, it may seem like your child cannot get his next breath. When the coughing ends and your child takes a breath, he may make a whooping noise. When he coughs, his face or fingertips may turn red, blue, or white because he is not getting enough oxygen. This may last 2 weeks or longer. After 2 to 4 more weeks, your child will begin to feel better. The cough may last 1 to 3 months. Your child may also have the following signs and symptoms:

  • Sneezing and a stuffy nose

  • Red or watery eyes

  • A cough that may worsen after 7 to 14 days

  • Fever

  • Fatigue

  • No interest in eating or drinking

  • Vomiting because of the coughing

  • Drooling

How is pertussis in children diagnosed?

Your child's healthcare provider will do a physical exam and listen to his lungs. He will ask how long your child has been sick. Tell him if your child has other medical conditions or has been around anyone with pertussis. He may order the following tests:

  • Blood tests will help your child's healthcare provider find out if he has an infection.

  • A nasal swab is a test that may help healthcare providers learn which type of germ is causing your child's illness. It is done by placing a cotton swab into your child's nose to collect a sample of nasal mucus.

  • A chest x-ray may be done to look for signs of infection, such as pneumonia.

How is pertussis in children treated?

Babies and young children are more likely to have serious breathing problems with pertussis. They may need to go into the hospital for tests and treatment. If your child is treated at home, he may need the following:

  • Care:

    • Give your child plenty of liquids. Ask your child's healthcare provider how much liquid your child should drink each day. Try to give him small amounts of liquid every hour when he is awake, even if he has throat pain.

    • Feed him small, healthy meals often. Offer your child a variety of healthy foods. Examples include fruits, vegetables, breads, dairy products, meat, poultry, and fish. Healthy foods may help your child feel better and have more energy. It may also help him get better faster. If your child is not hungry or tires easily, try feeding him smaller amounts more often.

    • Use a humidifier. Run a cool mist humidifier to increase air moisture in your child's bedroom. Follow the humidifier instructions to run it and clean it properly. Keep the humidifier out of your child's reach. The humidifier will help loosen the mucus in your child's throat and make it easier for him to breathe. It may also soothe your child's cough.

    • Keep your child's airways clear. Use a bulb syringe to gently clean your baby's nose. Wash the bulb syringe after each use. Clean out your baby's nose before breast or bottle feeding so he can breathe easier while feeding. You may need to feed your baby smaller amounts more often if he gets tired during feedings. Clean your baby's nose before you put him down to sleep.

    • Let your child rest. Your child should rest as much as possible. Try to keep him calm. His breathing and coughing may become worse if he cries.

  • Medicines:

    • Antibiotics help treat or prevent a bacterial infection.

    • NSAIDs help decrease swelling and pain or fever. This medicine is available with or without a doctor's order. NSAIDs can cause stomach bleeding or kidney problems in certain people. If your child takes blood thinner medicine, always ask if NSAIDs are safe for him. Always read the medicine label and follow directions. Do not give these medicines to children under 6 months of age without direction from your child's doctor.

    • Acetaminophen decreases pain and fever. It is available without a doctor's order. Ask how much your child should take and how often he should take it. Follow directions. Acetaminophen can cause liver damage if not taken correctly.

How can I prevent pertussis?

  • DTaP vaccine: This vaccine is given to help prevent diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (whooping cough). Children usually get 5 doses of the vaccine. These should be given at ages 2, 4 and 6 months, between 15 and 18 months, and between 4 and 6 years.

  • Tdap vaccine: This vaccine is a booster shot used to help prevent diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis (whooping cough) in older children and adults. This booster vaccine is given only once to adolescents (11 years of age or older) who have been vaccinated for it before. It is also given only once to adults who have been vaccinated for it before or who do not know if they have had it before. Pregnant women are given the booster at 27 to 36 weeks of pregnancy.

  • Prevent the spread of pertussis. If your child has signs or symptoms of pertussis, keep him away from others. If your child has had contact with someone who has pertussis, keep him away from others. Ask your child's healthcare provider if you or family members need to receive antibiotic medicine or a booster shot.

When should I contact my child's healthcare provider?

  • Your child has a fever.

  • Your child is not drinking liquids.

  • Your child's cough is getting worse.

  • Your child is tugging his ears or has ear pain.

  • Your child is not sleeping or resting because of the cough.

  • You have questions or concerns about your child's condition or care.

When should I seek immediate care or call 911?

  • Your child has been vomiting and cannot keep anything down.

  • Your child has the following signs of dehydration:

    • Crying without tears

    • Dry mouth or tongue

    • Fussiness, sleepiness, or dizziness

    • Sunken soft spot on the top of his head (if your baby is younger than 1 year)

    • Urinating less than usual

    • Wrinkled skin

  • Your child has more severe coughing spells, is short of breath, breathing faster than normal, or working hard to breathe.

  • Your child's skin between his ribs or above his breast bone pulls in with each breath.

  • Your child's lips or fingernails are blue or white.

  • Your child's nostrils are flaring with each breath.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your child's care. Learn about your child's health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your child's caregivers to decide what care you want for your child. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© 2014 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.

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