What is whooping cough?

Whooping cough is also called pertussis. It is an infection of the lungs and airways. It causes a person to cough violently and uncontrollably. This can make it hard for the person to breathe.

Whooping cough is a serious disease because it can lead to pneumonia, brain damage and sometimes death.

Whooping cough is caused by a type of bacteria called Bordetella pertussis.

What are the symptoms of whooping cough?

Whooping cough symptoms include:

  • blocked or runny nose
  • sneezing
  • raised temperature
  • uncontrolled bouts of coughing that sounds like a ‘whoop’ or are followed by a ‘whooping’ noise
  • vomiting after coughing.

Symptoms usually start about seven to 10 days after catching whooping cough, with a cold, blocked or runny nose, coughing and a mild fever.

The cough gets worse and often happens at night. It might stop you from sleeping. Coughing attacks can be very violent, and some people vomit or faint after coughing. Some people with whooping cough can cough so hard they break their ribs.

A milder cough can last for several months.

Babies might not have a bad cough, or might not cough at all. Symptoms in babies can include pauses in breathing, turning blue or having trouble feeding.

Some people develop a distinctive ‘whooping’ sound when they cough, but this does not happen to everyone. Adolescents and adults often do not have a ‘whoop’.

Who is at risk from whooping cough?

Whooping cough can affect people at any age, but those at high risk of catching the disease include:

  • babies less than six months old who are not yet old enough to be fully vaccinated
  • people living in the same household as someone with whooping cough
  • people who have not had a whooping cough booster in the last 10 years.

Babies have the highest risk of serious disease. They are more likely to need to go to hospital or die from whooping cough. About one in every 200 babies under six months old who get whooping cough dies from pneumonia or brain damage.

Older children and adults may get a milder case of the disease.

How do you get whooping cough?

Whooping cough can spread:

  • when an infected person coughs or sneezes and another person breathes it in
  • through close contact with an infected person
  • if you spend a lot of time with someone who has whooping cough.

Because whooping cough is highly contagious, it can spread easily through families, childcare centres and schools. People who have been vaccinated against whooping cough can still get the disease – especially if they have not had a booster in the last 10 years.

Some people may not know they have whooping cough because they do not have any symptoms or have only mild symptoms. They can, however still spread the disease to other people.

How do you prevent whooping cough?

Vaccination is a safe and effective way to protect against whooping cough.

Whooping cough vaccines prevent serious disease. Because immunity fades over time, you need booster doses to make sure you stay protected.

For more information on whooping cough immunisation, see Whooping cough immunisation.

If you have whooping cough, you can help stop the disease spreading by:

  • staying away from childcare, school, work or other places where you could spread the infection. Your doctor will tell you when you are no longer infectious.
  • covering your coughs and sneezes
  • washing your hands often.

People who are in close contact with someone who has whooping cough may be given antibiotics to help prevent them getting the disease. Antibiotics would be given to:

  • people who have a higher risk of serious disease from whooping cough
  • people who could pass the disease on to someone at higher risk of serious whooping cough disease.

How do you know you have whooping cough?

If you think you or one of your family members has whooping cough, see your doctor.

Your doctor will ask about your symptoms and whether you may have been in contact with someone who has whooping cough. If your doctor thinks you have whooping cough, they can swab the back of your nose or throat or do a blood test to confirm the diagnosis.

How do you get treated for whooping cough?

Antibiotics can be used to treat whooping cough in the early stages. This can prevent a severe case of the disease and help stop the infection spreading to other people.

Some babies may need treatment in hospital or intensive care.

If you are not treated early with the right antibiotics, you can spread the infection to other people in the first few weeks of your illness.

Even after you are treated, your cough can continue for many weeks.

More information

Contacts 

If you need advice or more information about immunisation, go to our Immunisation contacts page.

Last updated: 
4 June 2018