Whooping Cough in Older Adults - Know the Symptoms
By Don Drake, Connelly Law Offices, Ltd.
"Pertussis, which is commonly known as whooping cough, is a respiratory illness that is caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis, and it is making a comeback in this country," stated professional fiduciary and certified elder law Attorney RJ Connelly III. "It is highly contagious and can cause severe coughing fits that can last for weeks, making it quite challenging for the infected person to breathe and speak. Although the disease is known to affect infants and young children more frequently, recent research by the pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline has revealed that older adults in the US are also susceptible to the disease, and that is problematic."
The study Attorney Connelly referred to analyzed almost forty-eight million cases of cough-related illnesses in the US between 2006 and 2010 and found that adults aged between 50 and 64 were estimated to have around 520,000 cases of pertussis. This number is significantly higher than the 8,764 medically attended (cared for by a healthcare professional) cases reported during the same period. Similarly, there were approximately 480,000 cases among adults aged sixty-five and older, compared to only 6,359 medically attended cases.
"These findings suggest that the incidence of pertussis among older adults may be underrecognized and underreported, meaning that the actual number of cases could be much higher," stated Attorney Connelly. "Moreover, the study found that whooping cough in older adults often goes undiagnosed, which can lead to the spread of the disease to vulnerable populations such as young children and infants. Another concern is that older adults are more likely to develop complications from the disease, resulting in hospitalizations and death."
The Effects of Pertussis
The bacterium spreads through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes. The primary symptom of whooping cough is intense coughing spells that can last several weeks and end with a characteristic "whoop" sound when the person tries to inhale air. The coughing can be so severe that it can cause vomiting and exhaustion, making it difficult to eat, drink, and breathe.
In some cases, coughing can cause broken ribs, hernias, and other complications. In the past, whooping cough was a significant public health problem, causing a high number of deaths, particularly in the 1930s and 1940s. However, the introduction of pertussis vaccines has significantly reduced the death rate. These vaccines are highly effective in preventing the disease, and it is recommended that all children receive the vaccine at 2, 4, and 6 months of age, with booster shots at 15-18 months and 4-6 years old. Adults are also advised to get booster shots to maintain immunity.
"Even though the vaccines are highly effective in preventing the disease, fully vaccinated individuals can still catch the illness if it is circulating in the community," Attorney Connelly pointed out. "Therefore, it is critical to practice good hygiene by washing hands regularly, covering the mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing, and staying home when sick to prevent the spread of the disease."
Infants too young to receive the vaccine are at a higher risk of contracting pertussis. They can get severely ill, and in some cases, the illness can even be fatal. It is a sad reality that many babies infected with pertussis have caught it from an adult, who may not even be aware that they are infected. Therefore, taking preventive measures, such as getting vaccinated, is essential to protect ourselves and those around us from this highly contagious disease.
The Dangers in Older Adults
"In older adults, pertussis may present differently, and they may experience a prolonged coughing illness that they mistake for a cold, bronchitis, or a smoking-related issue," said Attorney Connelly. "Because they tend to attribute the cough to these causes, they can experience severe consequences that can be debilitating, disrupt sleep and, as stated earlier, cause fractured ribs, which are extremely painful. In rare cases, it can even develop into pneumonia, which can be life-threatening."
The repeated coughing in seniors can lead to social issues as well. Attorney Connelly states, "Since the pandemic, someone who coughs in public has been looked at very differently, and the cough associated with pertussis is quite severe. This can cause seniors to withdraw from their usual activities and become isolated, making it difficult for family and friends to notice if their symptoms worsen. Additionally, the increased pressure caused by coughing can lead to stress incontinence in older adults, significantly affecting their quality of life."
Pertussis can have grave consequences for individuals with preexisting medical conditions such as congestive heart failure or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). In severe cases, pertussis can lead to life-threatening conditions such as intracranial hemorrhage or carotid artery dissection. It is especially concerning for older adults as it has been reported to cause death in this age group. Therefore, it is recommended that seniors take the necessary precautions and seek timely medical attention if pertussis is suspected.
The Stages of Pertussis
Whooping cough develops in three stages:
Whooping cough is a highly contagious respiratory disease that can be transmitted from person to person, especially in the initial stages of the disease. The symptoms of whooping cough usually start with a mild cold-like phase that lasts approximately one to two weeks. During this phase, the infected person may experience a runny nose, sneezing, watery eyes, mild cough, fatigue, and a low-grade fever. These symptoms can easily be mistaken for a common cold or flu, making diagnosing the disease in its initial stages difficult. Therefore, it is recommended to seek medical attention if you experience any of these symptoms, especially if you have been in contact with someone who has the disease.
As the illness progresses, individuals may begin to experience a harsh and prolonged cough that causes them to struggle for air. This type of cough is often accompanied by a distinctive "whooping" sound that occurs when people inhale sharply after coughing. During this second stage of the illness, individuals are still contagious, and the symptoms typically persist for anywhere between one and six weeks. It's essential to seek medical attention if you or someone you know is exhibiting these symptoms to receive proper treatment and prevent the spread of the illness.
During the final phase of pertussis, which is commonly known as whooping cough, the frequency and severity of coughing fits gradually decrease. This phase can last for several weeks or even months; during this time, patients are no longer considered contagious. However, people recovering from pertussis may be more susceptible to other infections, which can prolong the recovery process. Therefore, they need to take extra precautions to protect themselves against other illnesses, such as getting plenty of rest, staying hydrated, and avoiding contact with individuals who may be sick.
A Final Word
"It is a widely held misconception that pertussis only affects children," stated Attorney Connelly. "The fact is it can also induce illness in older adults. Therefore, older adults who experience an enduring cough should seek medical evaluation. It can be a symptom of pertussis or other serious conditions such as viral illnesses, acid reflux, acute bronchitis, COPD, and pneumonia. If pertussis is present and left untreated, adults can become carriers of the illness and transmit the disease to younger children."
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