What is whooping cough?

Whooping cough is a bacterial infection caused by Bordetella pertussis. It spreads when an infected person coughs or sneezes and you breathe it in.

The bacteria affect the lungs and airways, causing a person to cough violently and uncontrollably. This can make it hard for the infected person to breathe.

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

Symptoms

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 7 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

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 6 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 it spreads

Whooping cough is highly contagious. It spreads when an infected person coughs or sneezes and you breathe it in.

Whooping cough can quickly spread 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 still spread the disease to other people.

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.

Prevention

Whooping cough can be prevented with vaccination.

If you have close contact with someone who has whooping cough, your doctor may give you antibiotics to prevent you getting infected. Antibiotics may 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.

Find out more about getting vaccinated against whooping cough

Diagnosis

Your doctor can diagnose whooping cough by:

  • checking your symptoms
  • asking whether you may have been in contact with someone who has whooping cough
  • swabbing the back of your nose or throat or doing a blood test.

If you have whooping cough your doctor may be required to notify your state or territory health department.

Treatment

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

Some babies may need treatment in hospital, sometimes in 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.

Contacts 

National Immunisation Hotline

Resources

Pertussis vaccines for Australians

What we are doing

We are reducing the risk of people getting whooping cough through the National Immunisation Program (NIP).

Last updated: 
29 March 2019