Whooping cough (also known as 'pertussis') is a highly contagious bacterial infection of the lungs and airways.
The disease is highly infectious and most serious in babies under the age of 12 months, particularly in the first few months.
Babies are at greatest risk of harm from whooping cough as they have soft airways that are vulnerable to damage from the severe coughing bouts, and may not yet be immune from vaccination.
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 persistent 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 a persistent hacking cough.
The incubation period for whooping cough is roughly between 7 to 20 days with its infectious period lasting from the first signs of the illness until about three weeks after coughing starts.
If an antibiotic is given, the infectious period will continue for up to five 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. Most states now offer the pertussis vaccination for free to expectant mothers. 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 two 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: May 2017