Whooping cough (also known as 'pertussis') is a highly infectious infection of the lungs and airways. It is caused by a bacteria.
The disease is most serious in babies under the age of 12 months, particularly in the first few months.
Young babies are most at risk of harm from whooping cough as they have soft airways that can be damaged from the severe coughing bouts. They may not yet have had their whooping cough vaccinations, which make the disease less severe.
Older children and adults, including those who have been vaccinated, can still get whooping cough. While it is not as critically dangerous as it is in small babies, it is still a distressing condition, with the cough lasting up to 3 months. Whooping cough has been called the ‘100 day cough’.
The condition usually begins with a lasting dry and irritating cough that progresses to intense bouts of coughing. Particularly in small children, these bouts can be followed by a distinctive 'whooping' noise as the child breathes in, which is how the condition gets its name, but in many cases the only sign is the hacking cough.
Symptoms appear about 7 to 10 days after you are infected. You are infectious from the first signs of the illness until about 3 weeks after coughing starts.
If an antibiotic is given, the infectious period will continue for up to 5 days after starting treatment.
Check your symptoms with healthdirect’s Symptom Checker to get advice on when to seek medical attention.
Added protection for infants
It is now recommended that all pregnant women receive a pertussis (whooping cough) vaccination during their third trimester (ideally at 28 weeks). A combination of antibodies being passed through the mother’s bloodstream and the reduced risk of the mother contracting the disease makes this an ideal time to administer the vaccine. Pertussis vaccine is available free of charge to eligible people under the National Immunisation Program. Speak to your doctor or antenatal care provider to schedule an appointment.
Fathers, grandparents and anyone else who is likely to come into contact with newborns should see their doctor to get a pertussis booster at least 2 weeks before the baby is born.
Should I keep my child home from school?
Here’s a list of common childhood illnesses, including whooping cough, and their recommended exclusion periods.
Last reviewed: March 2019