Dangers of whooping cough, one teen's battle with pertussis

For weeks, the Szymanskis, a family from South Bend, dealt with a very sick child.

14-year-old Casey woke up with intense coughing and vomiting spells multiple times a night for a month.

"I've never seen anything like it,' said Mike Szymanski, Casey's dad. "For us it was just fear, I feared I was going to lose him I didn't know if he was going to get his next breath."

His parents, Mike and Tina, had never seen these issues with their son, normally athletic and in shape. The Szymanskis took two trips to the emergency room, visited several doctors and made appointments with specialists, all to no avail.

Finally, after nearly a month of struggling, the Szymanskis found their answer at Riley Hospital for Children. Casey, was diagnosed with pertussis, also known as "whooping cough."

"It just starts out as like a mucusy kind of grunt," said Casey. "Like you're clearing your throat or something. Then it brings on this cough. As you cough, what it feels like, like your airway, you can't take any more air."

The diagnosis was shocking for the Szymanskis, since Casey was vaccinated as a baby and had a booster in 2010.

But health officials are seeing an increase in the highly contagious disease. In fact, the St. Joseph County Health Department believes the number of reported cases in the area will double in 2013. The reason is unknown, but some experts believe the vaccine wears off over time.

More cases of pertussis began after 1980 when more 7 to 10 year olds were being diagnosed. Last year, over 40,000 cases were reported, the highest since the 1950's. These incidents are most likely due to a change in the vaccine formula.

"The previous vaccine caused a pretty significant reaction in children," said Dr. Thomas Felger of the St. Joseph County Health Department. "So, they made it weaker. This is an unintended side effect."

Signs of whooping cough start out like a cold. The illness comes in 3 stages. First, cold-like symtpoms and a fever for 1-2 weeks. Stage 2 is the most severe with the distinctive "whooping" sounds, violent coughing and vomiting spells. Stage 3 is the recovery period for another 2-3 weeks. Whooping cough is also known as the "100 day cough" because of its duration.

To prevent the sickness that happened in Casey's family, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) recommends getting vaccinated more than once. According to the CDC, babies under 18 months should be vaccinated four times with a DTaP. Kids age 10-11 should be vaccinated with the TDaP, with a potential booster every 5 years. And adults, over age 19, should get TDaP boosters every 10 years.

Infants are the most at risk. Half of the babies who are diganosed are hospitalized.

In addition to immunization, Casey's mom says being aware, is key.

"I think the most, the thing that I remember most, when he asked me after these episodes, he said, 'mom, can you fix me? Just fix me,' and that helplessness was really hard. Because we didn't know what was wrong with him," said Tina Szymanski.

For more information on pertussis, visit the CDC website or contact your physician.

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