Oct. 1, 2006

Cornellians urged to stay alert to symptoms of pertussis (whooping cough)

A Cornell student is one of a small number of people in Tompkins County recently diagnosed with pertussis (commonly known as "whooping cough").

Tompkins County Health Department officials confirmed that the student has been treated and is doing well. No longer contagious, the student has been cleared to return to class. The people most at risk of infection ("intimate contacts," those who had face-to-face contact within a 3-foot radius, as well as hugging, kissing, sharing food or drink), have already been identified by the student, and they have received preventive treatment. "Casual contact" in classrooms, offices, dining areas and other settings is considered a low-risk exposure requiring no medical intervention.

Though pertussis is an uncommon respiratory infection (only 300 to 1,000 cases in New York state each year), awareness of the characteristics of the illness, and prompt evaluation and treatment of symptoms of possible pertussis is important for personal and public health.

Pertussis is a contagious bacterial infection of the respiratory tract that is spread in droplets through the air by coughing or sneezing. It usually begins with symptoms resembling those of a common cold, including sneezing, runny nose, low-grade fever and a mild cough. Within a couple of weeks, the cough becomes more severe and is characterized by episodes of numerous rapid coughs that may be followed by a high-pitched whooping sound or vomiting. A thick, clear mucous may be discharged. The cough is often worse at night, and cough medicines usually do not help alleviate it.

"This is a time of year when many people are resigned to living with symptoms associated with allergies and colds," said Dr. Janet Corson-Rikert, director of Gannett Health Services. "But when more serious or persistent symptoms develop that suggest the possibility of pertussis or other significant illness, we urge people not to delay seeking evaluation by a health-care provider."

Pertussis is treated with antibiotics that can shorten recovery time and lower the chances of spreading the disease to others. Students can call Gannett Health Services at (607) 255-5155 to schedule an appointment or consult with a health-care provider.

Corson-Rikert also emphasizes that good personal hygiene habits will help reduce the risk of getting and passing infections of all kinds. "Wash your hands frequently with soap or an alcohol-based sanitizer; muffle your cough and sneezes (use your sleeve or a tissue); avoid touching your face with your hands; stay home if you are sick; and (it can't be emphasized enough) wash your hands."