CHAPEL HILL, NC (WTVD) -- Orange County Health officials say there is a whooping cough outbreak in the county. Health leaders define an outbreak as three or more cases.
Iulia Vann, the Public Health Services Manager with Orange County Health, says the outbreak started last week.
Right now, there are whooping cough cases at Chapel Hill High School and East Chapel Hill High.
The children affected started showing signs of the illness last week at the two high schools. At least three students were sickened.
They were put in isolation to prevent the spread of the disease, known as pertussis - or whooping cough.
When the whooping cough was confirmed, letters were sent home notifying parents.
But Alicia Belledocci, the mother of a student at East Chapel Hill High - said she learned about the outbreak from ABC11.
"To think that they might have spread it, and it may go into the homes of other families - it's very scary," Belledocci said.
People can be exposed to whooping cough through someone sneezing or coughing. The infection can lie dormant for weeks until the first symptoms appear.
"Whooping cough is a bacterial disease that is spread by air and direct contact with a person that is contagious," Vann said. "And the symptoms are a really bad cough.
Symptoms can include a low-grade fever, runny nose, coughing fits, whooping, exhaustion, and even vomiting - the symptoms can take days or even weeks to flare up after exposure.
The illness is extremely dangerous for babies. Instead of coughing, infants may stop breathing.
Officials with the health department say vaccinations are key to prevention.
Early diagnosis and treatment are important. The illness is usually treated with an antibiotic. Patients are isolated for five days to prevent spread.
Most students are supposed to be vaccinated before entering school, but health officials said there are loopholes.
A child can be exempted from the vaccine if a doctor suspects the child may be allergic to it.
Parents can also deny vaccinations for religious reasons.
Whooping cough outbreak in Chapel Hill high schools