Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern University and Evanston's Only Daily News Source Since 1881

The Daily Northwestern


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Northwestern on the lookout for whooping cough

Northwestern students beware: prolonged coughing could be a symptom of something more serious than the typical cold.

NU Health Service has been on alert for pertussis, or the whooping cough, since last month, after several cases were reported in the neighboring communities of Wilmette and Winnetka. Although NUHS has identified probable cases of pertussis on campus, there have been no confirmed cases.

Pertussis is a highly communicable bacterial disease characterized by violent coughing, often accompanied by a whooping sound. Early on, its symptoms mimic those of a common cold, so it’s difficult to diagnose, said Dr. John Alexander, acting executive director and medical director for NUHS. Symptoms often go away after 10 to 14 days, but a severe coughing fit that causes vomiting and difficulty breathing returns after that period, Alexander said.

Because of confirmed cases at middle schools in Wilmette and Winnetka, the Cook County Department of Public Health started offering free immunizations to all middle school students around Oct. 27, said Dianne Bader, public health nurse for the village of Wilmette.

“To date, there are 15 reported cases in Wilmette,” Bader said. “It’s still going around. We still have a few cases in some of the schools, but everyone is getting the booster shot for it, either through the free immunizations or through private physicians.”

A vaccine called Tdap is a combined protection against tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis given to most children, with boosters administered every few years.

In Evanston, there are no outbreaks of pertussis so far this year, said Margaret Mathias, communicable disease specialist for the city of Evanston. Mathias said an outbreak requires that two or more people from different households test positive for the disease.

Still, NUHS is taking extra precaution against probable cases because of the proximity of the confirmed cases, Alexander said. Students who exhibit the symptoms for more than two weeks are given antibiotics, he said.

“The difficulty with this disease is that you’re infectious for several weeks before we can make the diagnosis that it is, in fact, pertussis,” Alexander said. “I’ve instructed our doctors to be more aggressive in treating suspected pertussis, even if they don’t quite yet meet the probable case definition that the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) provides.”

Divya Chhabra and five of her seven housemates had the symptoms of whooping cough. She said doctors told her the test to confirm pertussis was expensive, and while there was a free option, it was also painful. The test involved putting a tube up the nose and into the throat, she said.

“I decided against getting the test,” the Weinberg senior said. “They told me there’s nothing you can do once you have whooping cough but to just wait until it goes away.”

Alexander said prolonged coughing could also be indicative of something else, such as bronchitis or post-viral symptoms. Still, he said he encourages students with prolonged cold symptoms to come in, especially if their symptoms are not improving or are significantly getting worse.

“We’ve been telling people to get the Tdap booster, too,” he said. “It’s not a bad idea to boost their immunity to pertussis even if we haven’t had a diagnosed case.”

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Northwestern on the lookout for whooping cough