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Whooping cough on the rise in southern Ontario — symptoms and prevention explained

Several public health units in southern Ontario are battling a rise in whooping cough cases.

child sick in bed coughing, whooping cough
Whooping cough is on the rise in parts of southern Ontario. (Photo via Getty Images)

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.

Several public health units in southern Ontario are battling a rise in whooping cough cases and are urging residents to get vaccinated against the respiratory illness.

Southwestern Public Health, which serves Oxford County, Elgin County and St. Thomas, Ont., recorded 82 cases of whooping cough from January 2022 to the end of February 2023 — 40 per cent of the provincial total from that period.

"It's a significant increase ... that is certainly striking," Dr. Ninh Tran, medical officer of health for Southwestern Public Health, said in an interview.

Whooping cough causes severe coughing that can last for weeks and is easily transmissible. Infants are most at risk of serious complications such as pneumonia, convulsions, brain damage and even death.

A gloved doctor or health care professional applies a patch or adhesive bandage to a girl or young woman after vaccination or drug injection. The concept of medicine and health care, vaccination and treatment of diseases. First aid services.
Getting vaccinated is one way of preventing whooping cough. (Photo via Getty Images)

According to Tran, lower immunization rates against whooping cough could be a factor in the rise in cases.

"In our region, we have relatively lower rates of immunization compared to others," the medical officer said.

"We've had a few cases that were hospitalized. That's why we just really need folks to get up-to-date on their immunization."

Huron Perth Public Health, which serves Stratford, Wingham, Listowel and Clinton, said it has confirmed at least 21 cases of whooping cough so far this year. In 2022, there were only three cases.

Similarly, the Windsor-Essex County Health Unit said there had been "a recent dramatic rise" in whooping cough cases in its region. Since November 2022, it has counted 18 cases.

Wellington-Dufferin-Guelph Public Health recorded "higher than normal" cases over fall and winter and attributed its lower immunization rates to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"Many individuals may be behind in their vaccinations because they were unable to get them due to COVID-19," it said in a statement. "Now is the time to get fully vaccinated as we engage in more community activities."

Mother and daughter visit the doctors office wearing protective face masks for the checkup to avoid the transfer of germs during COVID-19.
Whooping cough is transmitted through respiratory droplets. (Photo via Getty Images)

What is whooping cough?

According to Public Health Ontario (PHA), whooping cough is "an acute infection of the respiratory tract caused by the bacteria Bordetella pertussis."

The condition is transmitted through respiratory droplets. An infected person spreads it by coughing and sneezing. The coughing can be so intense that a "whooping" sound happens when you try to catch your breath.

According to the Government of Canada, each year between 1,000 and 3,000 Canadians fall ill from pertussis. Worldwide, there are about 20 to 40 million cases of and 400,000 deaths from pertussis each year.

Without treatment, pertussis can last for weeks or months, and can cause brain damage or even death.

The condition is most dangerous for children under one year old, especially if they are unvaccinated. In some cases, whooping cough can lead to worse complications like pneumonia.

What are the signs and symptoms of whooping cough?

PHA explains that whooping cough symptoms start small and consistently get worse.

The condition will initially present as a mild respiratory illness featuring a mild fever, runny nose, red watery eyes and a cough, which progresses to "prolonged cough episodes." During the episodes, choking or vomiting is sometimes present.

For older children and adults, pertussis symptoms may be less severe. They may appear as cold-like symptoms with a cough that lasts longer than a week.

If you or someone you know has a severe or prolonged cough, or any of the above symptoms, see a health care provider as soon as you can.

Asian kid girl sick with sneezing on nose and cold cough on tissue paper because of influenza and illness or virus bacteria.
Whooping cough will initially present as a mild respiratory illness. (Photo via Getty Images)

Why is there a rise of whooping cough?

While there could be a plethora of factors leading to the rise of whooping cough in Ontario, there's one main factor contributing to the large number of cases in the area: a lack of vaccinations.

Moreover, as whooping cough is extremely contagious, it's likely spread in schools or public settings where children and infants congregate.

Refer to Health Canada for more information on where and how to get your whooping cough vaccine.

Who is at risk of whooping cough?

While can get whooping cough, it is most dangerous for infants under the age of one.

As immunization programs begin at two months, infants under two months of age are vulnerable. Those who are most at risk for pertussis are children who are not vaccinated or under-vaccinated.

Additionally, pregnant women in the third trimester or individuals with chronic respiratory illnesses are also more at risk.

Side view close-up of pregnant woman touching her belly. Pregnancy health & wellbeing concept.
Other than infants, pregnant women in the third trimester are at risk of whooping cough. (Photo via Getty Images)

How can I help prevent whooping cough?

To prevent whooping cough, Health Canada recommends infants and children get the vaccine.

A child under six years old needs five doses of the pertussis vaccine, starting at two months of age. As protection lessens over time, so it's important to get a booster dose.

You may need a booster for pertussis if you are between 14 and 16 years of age, you are an adult and you were not immunized against pertussis, or if you are between 27 and 32 weeks of pregnancy.

Additionally, if you interact with infants and children on a regular basis, it's very important to be vaccinated.

Outside of the vaccine, other ways to help prevent whooping cough are to consistently wash your hands, refrain from sharing food, drinks or cutlery, and covering your nose and mouth when coughing or sneezing.

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