A recent study in Denmark revealed that infants who were diagnosed with whooping cough or pertussis have an elevated risk for epilepsy when they grow up.

Whooping cough is an acute respiratory infection common during childhood. Children who are afflicted with it experience terrible coughing spell that make it hard for them to breathe, eat or sleep.

In a study issued in The Journal of the American Medical Association, researchers assessed national data which consisted of 4,700 patients born between 1978 and 2011 who had been diagnosed with whooping cough. Half of these patients were diagnosed before turning 6 months old.

Researchers compared the patients who were diagnosed with whooping cough against another group of gender-matched children who are part of the general population.

The study found that at 10 years old, the other group had a risk for epilepsy at 0.9 percent, while the patients who were diagnosed with whooping cough early on had a 1.7 percent risk for childhood epilepsy. They also found that children who were diagnosed with whooping cough after turning 4 years old do not have an increased risk for epilepsy.

"To our knowledge, this is the first study to examine the risk of epilepsy following pertussis," said lead author Dr. Morten Olsen from the Aarhus University Hospital.

In the United States, children are given five doses of the vaccine against pertussis as part of the DTaP schedule. They get the vaccine at 2, 4, 6 and 18 months of age and at 4 to 6 years old. Experts say that these shots also protect children against other bacterial diseases such as tetanus and diphtheria.

Nearly 50,000 cases of whooping cough were reported in the U.S. in 2012, while about 16 million cases are reported worldwide every year, experts said.

Dr. Meghan Fleming, a neurologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City who reviewed the Denmark study, said that cases of pertussis are relatively rare in the U.S. and the risk for any child to get epilepsy is low. Fleming suggested that future research should investigate the basic immune-linked mechanisms that influence the onset of epilepsy. Researchers should look into how infections such as pertussis trigger the immune-linked mechanisms, she said.

Meanwhile, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that about 4.3 million people or 1.8 percent of adults in the U.S. were diagnosed with epilepsy or a seizure disorder in 2013. The disease can be treated with anti-seizure medications and other management methods.

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