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Whooping cough

12-minute read

Key facts

  • Whooping cough is a contagious illness. Bacteria Bordetella pertussis causes it.
  • The cough can last for months and may have a ‘whoop’ sound.
  • Whooping cough can cause serious health problems in babies.
  • Vaccination is the best protection against whooping cough.
  • Adults may need booster vaccines for full immunity.
  • Pregnant women and adults who have contact with babies should get a booster vaccine.

What is whooping cough?

Whooping cough is a bacterial infection that spreads from one person to another. It causes severe bouts of coughing. The ‘whoop’ refers to the sound you may make if you take a quick breath between coughs. Pertussis, or the ‘hundred-day cough, are other names for whooping cough.

Whooping cough can feel uncomfortable and last for a long time. After one to 2 weeks, the cold symptoms get better, but the cough gets worse. After 2 to 6 weeks, the cough begins to get better. But it can take weeks to months for the cough to go away completely.

It may cause serious health problems, more so in young babies and children. The whooping cough vaccine is on the childhood immunisation schedule. This vaccination has reduced the rate of illness and hospitalisation from whooping cough in Australia. Outbreaks occur every 3–4 years and are most common in people not vaccinated.

This article gives advice for people aged 5 and above. You can find information about whooping cough during pregnancy and in babies and younger children on the Pregnancy, Birth and Baby website.

What are the symptoms of whooping cough?

Whooping cough usually begins with cold-like symptoms including:

  • runny nose
  • sneezing
  • mild dry cough
  • fever

After these mild symptoms appear, the cough worsens.

The cough comes in long, uncontrollable bursts. This may happen at night, which may make it difficult for you to sleep. When the cough is severe, it may cause vomiting, fainting, broken ribs and poor bladder control (urinary incontinence).

Whooping cough’s most well-known symptom is the ‘whoop’ sound. Taking a quick breath between bouts of coughing causes this sound. Not everyone who has whooping cough will make the ‘whoop sound’. Babies may not have a cough at all. But they can have episodes of turning blue or pauses in their breathing.

If your child has trouble breathing or turns blue call 000 immediately — this is an emergency.

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the breathing problems Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

What causes whooping cough and how does it spread?

Bacteria called Bordetella pertussis causes whooping cough. Having contact with an infected person’s breathing fluids spreads it. For example, if you have direct contact with an infected person or they cough or sneeze near you.

Whooping cough is contagious. If you do not get vaccinated, about 9 in 10 people who have contact with a household member with whooping cough will catch the infection.

You are contagious with whooping cough for 3 weeks after the cough starts, or until you have had 5 days of antibiotics.

If anyone in your household has whooping cough, they should not attend childcare, school or work. This is to prevent spreading the infection to others. Talk to your doctor if you are unsure whether you or your child can return to work or school.

Who is at risk of whooping cough?

Anyone of any age can catch whooping cough. Some groups have a higher risk.

These include:

  • people who have not been vaccinated against whooping cough
  • people who have not received a whooping cough booster vaccine in the past 10 years
  • babies under 6 months old because they are not old enough to get vaccinated
  • people living in the same house as someone with whooping cough

Whooping cough is most dangerous for babies. Most hospitalisations and deaths from whooping cough happen in babies who are not old enough to receive all the vaccine doses.

If you or your child has had close contact with someone who has whooping cough, speak to your doctor. Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to reduce your chance of becoming infected. This is important for young children, people at high risk of health problems and those likely to pass the infection to children.

Whooping cough is a notifiable condition. This means that your doctor needs to tell the local health authorities about the cases they see. It is important for local health authorities to know about whooping cough in the community, so they can help control an outbreak.

Can I have the whooping cough vaccine if I’m pregnant?

Pertussis-containing vaccines are safe for pregnant women. They should receive the whooping cough vaccination between 20 and 32 weeks to boost their protection against whooping cough. Vaccination at this stage of pregnancy means the mother passes on whooping cough antibodies to their growing baby. This gives the baby protection after birth — even before they are old enough to get immunised.

If you or your partner are pregnant, ask your doctor or midwife about getting vaccinated.

Partners, grandparents, carers and other adults who have contact with babies should have the whooping cough vaccine.

When should I see my doctor if I have whooping cough?

You should see your doctor if you think you or your child has whooping cough. This is to make sure you receive a diagnosis and the correct treatment.

Getting a professional diagnosis helps you get the right treatment and protects your household and close contacts. It may give health authorities important information about infections in the community.

If you or your child has trouble breathing call 000 immediately — this is an emergency.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

How will my doctor know if I have whooping cough?

Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms and if you have been in contact with someone who has whooping cough. They will listen to your breathing.

If the doctor thinks you may have whooping cough, they might tell you to have some tests. The tests include a nose or throat swab or a blood test. These tests can help work out if you have whooping cough.

It is best to have these tests when your symptoms first start. Do not delay going to your doctor if you think you have whooping cough.

What is the treatment for whooping cough?

Antibiotics are used to treat whooping cough. While it is not usual for antibiotics to speed up your recovery, they will reduce your risk of spreading whooping cough to others. You are no longer contagious 5 days after starting antibiotics or 3 weeks after the cough starts.

You can try to relieve your symptoms with these tips:

How can I prevent whooping cough?

The best protection against whooping cough is vaccination.

Many illnesses show similar symptoms to whooping cough. If you and your child get vaccinated, you and your child’s symptoms may be mild.

Vaccination prevents most cases of serious illness caused by whooping cough. It also reduces the number of cases of whooping cough in the community. This will protect people who are young or unable to get vaccinated.

Vaccines against whooping cough are available as a combination vaccine. Your doctor will tell you which one is right for you depending on your age and situation.

Children and pregnant women can receive the whooping cough vaccination for free through the National Immunisation Program.

At what age is vaccination recommended?

Children: 6 doses of vaccine, usually at 2 months, 4 months, 6 months, 18 months, 4 years and 11–13 years.

Pregnant women: between 20 – 32 weeks of every pregnancy

Adults who have been in contact with babies under 6 months old

Adults at ages 50 and 65 and over

Healthcare workers who have not had a booster in the last 10 years

Childcare workers who have not had the booster in the last 10 years

People travelling overseas who have not had a booster in the last 10 years

How many doses?

6 doses in childhood

One dose as a booster for adults

Ask your doctor how many doses are recommended for you.

How is the vaccine administered? You will receive the vaccine by injection.
Is it free?

Vaccination is free through the National Immunisation Program for pregnant women, people under 20 years of age and refugees entering Australia at any age.

Your doctor may charge a consultation fee for your visit. You can find your nearest bulk billing (no fee) GP clinic using the healthdirect Service Finder tool.

Common side effects

Vaccination against whooping cough is safe, but it can cause minor side effects. Common side effects include pain, redness and swelling at the injection site.

What health problems can come with whooping cough?

Most health problems due to whooping cough happen in babies and can cause long-term disability or death.

Health problems include:

Resources and support

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: May 2022

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