Most children are immunized against whooping cough. It's a standard vaccination. But it wears off after six or eight years, leaving older children and adults vulnerable. Dr. Lynnette Mazur is a professor of pediatrics at UT Medical School here in Houston. She says whooping cough can spread very rapidly because it's hard to tell it apart from the common cold.
"The important part is that you need to catch it early in the illness, when it kind of is kind of like a cough or a runny nose. And that's the hard part, because you don't know if it's pertussis or if it's just a real common upper respiratory tract infection."
Whooping cough in very young infants can be deadly. Children sometimes present at the hospital with difficulty breathing. In fact, in Texas last year eight children died of the illness, also known as pertussis.
"There are kids in the hospital that come in, the little infants, they're so sick. They, like I said, they can stop breathing, they can have pneumonia, they can actually have a seizure because they have a fever. So yes, unfortunately we do see pertussis."
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report a gradual increase in cases since the 1980s. The most recent numbers for hospitalizations for whooping cough rose by 23 percent over a four year period. And the sharpest regional increases are in the West and South. Mazur says whooping cough is cyclical, which may explain the upswing in cases.
"It occurs endemically, which means it's always there but you have kind of rising incidence or prevelance of the illness cycling every three to five years."
Adolescents and adults are the most frequent carriers and can quickly infect large numbers of people. The Department of Health and Human services released a new booster for children from the ages of 11-18. There is also an antibiotic treatment for adults with whooping cough. Laurie Johnson, Houston Public Radio News.