PORTLAND – Maine is seeing a significant increase in the number of pertussis (whooping cough) cases right now, and new cases are being diagnosed nearly every day. The highest numbers have been reported in Cumberland, Somerset, Penobscot and York counties. Across the state, 125 confirmed cases were reported between January and June, which is a 150 percent increase over the same period in 2011.

The majority of these cases have occurred in school-aged children and teens. Although school is now out for the year, summer camps, family vacations and other group activities bring new groups of children, teens and adults together, making it likely that pertussis could continue spreading in Maine.

Whooping cough can be an awful illness for people of any age, but it is most serious — even deadly — for the youngest infants. That is because the cough can be so hard and so constant that these very young children may not be able to catch their breath. That is why we must protect infants and other vulnerable groups from this terrible disease by making sure that the adults, teens and children in our lives are up to date on their pertussis vaccination.

So what is pertussis, anyway? It is an upper-respiratory illness caused by a bacterial infection, and at first it may resemble an ordinary cold, with a runny nose, sneezing, fever (usually between 100 and 102 degrees) and a mild cough. The illness is spread in the tiny droplets that result when an infected individual coughs or sneezes. These droplets land on clothing, hands and furniture and are inhaled or brought into the noses and mouths of others by way of their hands, spreading the infection quite easily and quickly.

After a week or so, the dry, nagging cough can become so intense that a person cannot breathe until the coughing spell ends. The quick intake of breath after this spell often results in the “whoop” sound that characterizes this second stage of illness, but it is typically heard only in younger children. This stage lasts for several weeks, and slowly, the fits of coughing become less frequent. Overall, whooping cough can last six to 10 weeks. Antibiotics given early in the course of infection can reduce the danger of the illness and its spread to other people.

How can you help reduce the spread of whooping cough?

n Vaccinate your children against pertussis. They need five doses of DTaP vaccine at 2, 4 and 6 months of age, again between 15 and 18 months and then again when they enter kindergarten, at between 4 and 6 years of age. DTaP contains vaccines against pertussis, diphtheria and tetanus.

n Because immunity to pertussis tends to fade by early adolescence, children should receive a Tdap booster vaccination between 10 and 12 years of age. Tdap also contains vaccines against pertussis, diphtheria and tetanus.

n Adults should get a Tdap vaccination if they have not already had one. If you have had a Td vaccination in the last 10 years, you still need to get a Tdap vaccination since most tetanus boosters given to adults do not contain the pertussis vaccine. It is particularly important for adults in close contact with infants to be sure they have received a Tdap immunization in the recent past or get one as soon as possible. Your doctor will be able to tell if you need a Tdap booster.

n If you are unsure if you or your children are up to date on pertussis vaccinations, call your doctor’s office.

By following these guidelines, we can all help slow or stop the spread of whooping cough to infants and others in our community who may be vulnerable. Before a vaccine was available, as many as 10,000 people in the United States died each year from whooping cough. Now, thanks largely to the availability of vaccine, pertussis accounts for fewer than 30 deaths each year in the U.S.

Please help stop the spread of pertussis in Maine. Make sure you and your family members are up to date on your DTaP and Tdap vaccinations.

— Special to the Press Herald