About whooping cough
Whooping cough is a highly contagious disease caused by Bordetella pertussis, a type of bacteria. It’s passed on through close personal contact, sneezing and coughing.
Although children are routinely immunised against whooping cough, there are outbreaks of whooping cough from time to time.
Whooping cough is also called pertussis.
Whooping cough symptoms
Symptoms usually start to appear 1-2 weeks after infection with the whooping cough bacteria.
The early symptoms look like the symptoms of a cold. For around a week, children might have a runny nose, sneezing and an occasional mild fever.
The cough develops gradually, starting at night but getting worse in the daytime. Children might have bouts of coughing that make it hard for them to breathe in. They might also make a ‘whooping’ sound at the end of coughing bouts as they gasp for a deep breath.
The bouts of coughing get worse over the next 2 weeks, increasing both in severity and frequency. The coughing bouts can be exhausting. Children’s faces might turn red. Sometimes children might vomit after coughing bouts. Children are usually comfortable between bouts.
The cough might linger for months.
Children can be contagious for up to 21 days after the cough starts.
Children who have been immunised against whooping cough are much less likely to get the disease. If immunised children do get whooping cough, their symptoms are usually milder.
Whooping cough complications
In babies under 6 months of age, whooping cough often has serious complications including severe pneumonia and apnoeas (pauses in breathing).
In young children, pneumonia and middle ear infections are the most common complications.
If your child has whooping cough and has lost their appetite or is vomiting a lot with the coughing bouts, there’s a risk they might lose weight and get dehydrated.
Medical help: when to get it for children with whooping cough symptoms
Babies under 6 months
Young babies need medical attention as soon as possible if they have any whooping cough symptoms. Take your baby to the GP.
Older babies, children and teenagers
You should take your child to the GP if they have any of the symptoms described above or you think they have whooping cough. You should also take your child to the GP if your child has:
- repeated and distressing coughing fits
- a cough that lasts longer than 2 weeks
- a prolonged fever as well as a cough
- a sore ear as well as a cough
- whooping cough and is losing weight or looks dehydrated.
Take your child to your nearest hospital emergency department if they:
- have trouble breathing or struggle for breath after coughing fits
- turn blue around the mouth after coughing fits.
If your baby is aged under 6 months, has whooping cough and you notice pauses in their breathing or they have difficulty breathing, call 000 for an ambulance. Your baby needs urgent medical attention.
Whooping cough treatment
If your child’s cough has lasted fewer than 14 days, your doctor might prescribe antibiotics. Antibiotics don’t usually help with whooping cough symptoms, but they reduce the length of time your child is infectious. This means antibiotics can help to prevent the spread of whooping cough from your child to others.
If your child’s cough is severe and causes them breathing difficulties or your child is less than 6 months old, your doctor might recommend a hospital stay for close nursing care. Children will often get antibiotics in hospital.
Other people in your house – especially children under 12 months – might be prescribed antibiotics to stop them catching whooping cough.
Children can usually go back to child care, preschool or school after 5 days of antibiotics. Children who haven’t been taking antibiotics shouldn’t go to child care, preschool or school for 21 days after their cough starts.
Whooping cough prevention
The best way to avoid whooping cough is to have your young child immunised and keep up with immunisation in the teenage years. As part of the Australian National Immunisation Program (NIP), your child will get free immunisation against whooping cough at:
- 6-8 weeks
- 4 months
- 6 months
- 4 years
- 12-13 years.
These immunisations are given by injection, often in combination with immunisation against other diseases.
Immunity against whooping cough fades with time. This means it’s possible to get the disease at a later age even if you’ve been immunised. Adults who are in contact with children younger than 6 months should have booster shots to avoid getting the infection and passing it on. Babies of this age haven’t completed the immunisation schedule and are still at risk of infection.
If you’re planning to get pregnant or already are pregnant, it’s a good idea to speak with your GP about your immunisation status. A whooping cough booster is recommended and free for pregnant women in their third trimester. It protects your newborn for the first 2 months of life when they’re most at risk of complications from whooping cough.