Whooping Cough

Whooping cough (or pertussis) is a highly contagious respiratory infection caused by bacteria. It can affect babies, children and adults. For adolescents and adults the infection may only be a persistent cough, however for young children whooping cough can be life threatening. The cough can obstruct a baby’s breathing and they may lack oxygen and become blue.

Pertussis (whooping cough) is caused by the bacterium Bordetella Pertussis. The disease is highly infectious and most serious in babies. Babies are at greatest risk of infection until they can have at least two doses of the vaccine (minimum 4 months old) as the mother’s antibodies do not provide reliable protection. It is spread through droplets in the air and it can develop from upper respiratory tract (nose, throat and windpipe) infection into pertussis pneumonia (lung infection).

A single booster dose of dTpa is recommended for both partners planning for pregnancy, parents and for grandparents and other carers of young children as soon as possible after delivery of an infant.

The protection provided by childhood vaccination gradually reduces over time’ leaving adolescents and adults potentially at risk of catching the disease. An adult-adolescent whooping cough vaccine, combined with diphtheria and tetanus vaccine (dTpa)’ is now available.

Whooping cough may start like a cold, with a runny nose and sneezing, and then the characteristic cough develops. These coughing bouts can be very severe and frightening, and may end with a crowing noise (the whoop). This occurs as air is drawn back into the chest, and can be followed by vomiting or gagging. In young infants, as well as older children and adults, the typical symptoms may not be present.

After exposure to the bacteria, it usually takes nine to ten days to become ill.

An infected person coughing or sneezing spreads the bacteria. Direct contact with the infection secretions from the mouth or nose can also pass on the infection.

A person is highly infectious for the first two weeks of their cough. After three weeks of coughing, the person is regarding as non-infectious, even though coughing may last up to three months.

Treatment is a full course of antibiotics, which reduces the time a person is infectious to others. Antibiotics need to be given within 21 days of the start of general symptoms or within 14 days of the start of the cough. Antibiotics reduce symptoms if given when infection is developing, after contact with a person with pertussis and in the early coughing stage.

Not all people who have close contact with an infected person with whooping cough need treatment. However, because infants are at a higher risk of severe complications if they develop whooping cough, a full course of antibiotics is recommended for the following people in the same house as a person with whooping cough (if the infected person has been coughing less than 21 days). This includes: any baby less than 12 months of age regardless of their vaccination status, any child between 12-24 months of age who has received less than three doses of a whooping cough vaccine, any woman in the last month of pregnancy and any child or adult who attends or works in a childcare centre.

If a child with whooping cough attends childcare and belongs to the infant group (less than 12 months of age), the other infants in that group should be given antibiotics if the infected child has been coughing less than 14 days.

A person with whooping cough should stay away from work, school and child-care until they have had full course of antibiotics or until 21 days after the beginning of the coughing or until the end of coughing, whichever comes first.

Household contacts, which have received less than three doses of whooping cough vaccine, should be excluded from child-care centers until they have taken a full course of antibiotics or for 14 days after the last exposure to infection.

Whooping couch can be prevented by vaccination. The whooping cough (pertussis) vaccine is combined together with diphtheria, tetanus and inactivated poliomyelitis vaccine (DTPa-IPV).


Midwife Cath® has taken time to ensure to provide accurate information to you and as the mother baby relationship is unique to each and everyone it is impossible to cover every situation.  If you have at any time concerns about the health and welfare of you or your baby you must consult personally with a health professional whenever you are in doubt about you or your baby’s health.