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.

Whooping cough is also called pertussis.

Although children are routinely immunised against whooping cough, there are outbreaks of whooping cough from time to time.

Whooping cough symptoms

The whooping cough bacteria usually infects children 1-2 weeks before symptoms appear.

The early symptoms look like the symptoms of a cold. For around a week, children might have a runny nose, sneezing and occasionally a mild fever.

The cough develops gradually, starting at night but becoming 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.

Sometimes children might vomit after coughing bouts. Their faces might turn red.

The bouts of coughing get worse over the next two weeks, increasing both in severity and frequency. The coughing bouts can be exhausting, although children are usually comfortable between bouts.

The cough might hang around for months.

Children can be infectious 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 six 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 lost her appetite or is vomiting a lot with the coughing bouts, there’s a risk she might lose weight and get dehydrated.

Should you see your doctor about whooping cough?

Yes. You should take your child to the GP if your child:

  • has any of the symptoms described above
  • has repeated and distressing coughing fits
  • has a cough that lasts longer than two weeks
  • has trouble breathing or struggles for breath after coughing fits
  • turns blue around the mouth after coughing fits
  • has a prolonged fever as well as a cough
  • has a cough and also complains of a sore ear
  • already has whooping cough and is losing weight or looks dehydrated.

If your baby is aged under six months and you notice pauses in his breathing, you should take him to a hospital emergency department or GP immediately.

Whooping cough treatment

Antibiotics don’t usually help with whooping cough symptoms, although your GP might prescribe antibiotics to help prevent your child from passing whooping cough to others. The GP might also prescribe antibiotics for complications of whooping cough.

If the cough has lasted fewer than 14 days, your doctor might prescribe antibiotics because this treatment will reduce the length of time your child is infectious. This means your child can go back to child care, preschool or school earlier, usually after five days of antibiotics.

If the cough is severe and causes breathing difficulties, or if your child is less than six months old, your doctor might recommend a hospital stay for close nursing care. If the disease is severe enough for hospital admission, your child will be given antibiotics.

Other people in the house – especially children under 12 months – might be prescribed antibiotics to stop them catching whooping cough.

If your child hasn’t been treated with antibiotics, she shouldn’t go back to child care, preschool or school for 21 days after the cough starts.

Whooping cough prevention

The best way to avoid whooping cough is to have your child immunised. As part of the Australian National Immunisation Program (NIP), your child will get free immunisation against whooping cough:

  • at 6-8 weeks
  • at 4 months
  • at 6 months
  • at 4 years
  • in year 7 or 8 at secondary school.

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’ll be in contact with children younger than six 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 vulnerable to 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 two months of life when he’s most at risk of complications from whooping cough.