Causes of whooping cough

Whooping cough is caused by Bordetella pertussis, a kind of bacteria. It’s passed on through close personal contact, sneezing and coughing.

Whooping cough is also called pertussis.

Whooping cough symptoms

The incubation period for whooping cough is 1-2 weeks – that is, the bacteria infects children 1-2 weeks before symptoms appear.

The early symptoms look like your child has a heavy cold – for example, he might have watery eyes, a runny nose, sneezing and mild fever, for around a week.

The cough develops gradually, starting at night but becoming worse in the daytime. Your child makes a ‘barking’ sound several times as she breathes out. Then she might make the characteristic ‘whooping’ sound as she gasps for a deep breath. Her face might turn red, and she might vomit at the end of a coughing bout.

The bouts of coughing get worse over the following two weeks, increasing both in severity and frequency. The coughing bouts usually exhaust your child. In between bouts, your child is usually comfortable.

The cough might hang around for months.

Your child can be infectious for up to 21 days after the cough starts.

Whooping cough often has serious complications in babies and young children. Pneumonia and middle ear infections are the most common. Both of these conditions need treatment with antibiotics. Forceful coughing can also sometimes lead to small nosebleeds or haemorrhages inside the eye.

If your child has lost his appetite and is vomiting a lot with the coughing bouts, there’s a risk he might lose weight and get dehydrated.

It’s very rare for children who have been immunised against whooping cough to get the disease – and if they do, the symptoms are usually milder.

Babies under six months old might have apnoeas (pauses in breathing) rather than a cough – take your baby to the doctor immediately if you notice this in your baby.

When to see your doctor about whooping cough symptoms

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 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.

Whooping cough treatment

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

If the cough has lasted fewer than 14 days, your doctor might prescribe antibiotics because it 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 10 at secondary school.

These immunisations are given by injection, often in combination with immunisation against other diseases.

Although whooping cough can happen in immunised children, the disease is generally not as bad in these children.

Immunity against whooping cough fades with time. Adults who will be in contact with children younger than six months should have a booster shot 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, you should check with your GP about whether you’re immune to whooping cough. If you’re already 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 you during pregnancy and also protects your newborn.