Whooping Cough (pertussis)
Whooping cough is a highly contagious disease. Symptoms that include fever and long periods of coughing that sound like a ‘whoop’. Whooping cough can affect people of all ages but it is more serious for babies.
Whooping cough can be prevented by immunization. Treatment includes antibiotics.
What is whooping cough?
Whooping cough is a bacterial infection caused by Bordetella pertussis. It spreads when an infected person coughs or sneezes and you breathe it in.
The bacteria affect the lungs and airways, causing a person to cough violently and uncontrollably. This can make it hard for the infected person to breathe.
Whooping cough is a serious disease because it can lead to pneumonia, brain damage and sometimes death.
Whooping Cough Complications
Whooping cough is most serious in babies under 12 months of age. In young babies less than six months of age, the symptoms can be severe or life-threatening. Seek urgent medical attention if your child’s lips or skin go blue (cyanosis) or if they are having breathing difficulties associated with the coughing.
Some of the complications of whooping cough in young babies include:
- hemorrhage (bleeding)
- apnoea (stopping breathing for periods of time)
- inflammation of the brain
- convulsions (fits) and coma
- permanent brain damage
(time between becoming infected and developing symptoms)
4 to 21 days, most commonly 7 to 10 days.
(time during which an infected person can infect others)
Whooping cough is highly infectious when the ‘cold-like’ symptoms occur in the early stages. Without treatment, a person is infectious for the first 3 weeks of coughing. With appropriate antibiotic therapy, the person is no longer infectious to others 5 days after starting antibiotics.
Whooping Cough Symptoms
Whooping cough symptoms include:
- blocked or runny nose
- raised temperature
- uncontrolled bouts of coughing that sound like a ‘whoop’ or are followed by a ‘whooping’ noise
- vomiting after coughing.
Symptoms usually start about 7 to 10 days after catching whooping cough, with a cold, blocked or runny nose, coughing and a mild fever.
The cough gets worse and often happens at night. It might stop you from sleeping. Coughing attacks can be very violent, and some people vomit or faint after coughing. Some people with whooping cough can cough so hard they break their ribs.
A milder cough can last for several months.
Babies might not have a bad cough or might not cough at all. Symptoms in babies can include pauses in breathing, turning blue or having trouble feeding.
Some people develop a distinctive ‘whooping’ sound when they cough, but this does not happen to everyone. Adolescents and adults often do not have a ‘whoop’.
Whooping Cough Risk factors
Whooping cough can affect people at any age, but those at high risk of catching the disease include:
- babies less than six months old who are not yet old enough to be fully vaccinated
- people living in the same household as someone with whooping cough
- people who have not had a whooping cough booster in the last 10 years.
Babies have the highest risk of serious disease. They are more likely to need to go to the hospital or die from whooping cough. About one in every 200 babies under 6 months old who get whooping cough dies from pneumonia or brain damage.
Older children and adults may get a milder case of the disease.
Whooping Cough Transmission
Whooping cough is highly contagious. It spreads when an infected person coughs or sneezes and you breathe it in.
Whooping cough can quickly spread through families, childcare centers and schools. People who have been vaccinated against whooping cough can still get the disease — especially if they have not had a booster in the last 10 years.
Some people may not know they have whooping cough because they do not have any symptoms or have only mild symptoms. They can still spread the disease to other people.
If you have whooping cough, you can help stop the disease spreading by:
- staying away from childcare, school, work or other places where you could spread the infection. Your doctor will tell you when you are no longer infectious.
- covering your coughs and sneezes
- washing your hands often.
Whooping Cough Prevention
Whooping cough can be prevented with vaccination.
If you have close contact with someone who has whooping cough, your doctor may give you antibiotics to prevent you from getting infected. Antibiotics may be given to:
- people who have a higher risk of serious disease from whooping cough
- people who could pass the disease on to someone at a higher risk of serious whooping cough disease.
Whooping Cough Diagnosis
Your doctor can diagnose whooping cough by:
- checking your symptoms
- asking whether you may have been in contact with someone who has whooping cough
- swabbing the back of your nose or throat or doing a blood test.
If you have whooping cough your doctor may be required to notify your state or territory health department.
Whooping Cough Treatment
Antibiotics are used to treat whooping cough in the early stages. This can prevent a severe case of the disease and help to stop the infection from spreading to other people.
Some babies may need treatment in hospital, sometimes in intensive care.
If you are not treated early with the right antibiotics, you can spread the infection to other people in the first few weeks of your illness.
Even after you are treated, your cough can continue for many weeks.
Immunization against whooping cough
In Victoria, the whooping cough vaccine is only available in a number of combined vaccines that also contain protection against other serious and potentially fatal diseases. The type of combined vaccine used for immunization will depend on the person’s age group. Children need to follow the full schedule of vaccines to be fully protected.
In Victoria, immunization against whooping cough is free for:
- children at two (from six weeks), four and six months of age – in the form of diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, hepatitis B, polio and Haemophilus influenza type b (Hib) vaccine (six-in-one vaccine)
- children at 18 months of age – in the form of diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough vaccine (three-in-one vaccine)
- children at four years of age – in the form of diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough and polio vaccine (four-in-one vaccine)
- adolescents in Year 7 at secondary school (or age equivalent) – adolescents receive a booster dose of diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough vaccine (three-in-one vaccine). The dose can also be given by a doctor or at a council community immunization session
- pregnant women from 20 weeks gestation – during every pregnancy, from 20 weeks gestation, pregnant women receive a dose of diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough vaccine (three-in-one vaccine)
- partners of women in the third trimester of pregnancy, if the partner has not received a whooping-cough-containing booster in the last ten years
- parents or guardians, if their baby is under six months of age and they have not received a whooping-cough-containing vaccine in the last ten years.
Free catch-up immunizations are also available in Victoria for people who have not been fully vaccinated, including:
- all people aged up to 19 years
- refugees and other humanitarian entrants aged 20 years and over
- vulnerable citizens.
If you are not sure whether you are eligible for immunization against whooping cough that is free of charge, ask your doctor.
Adult immunization against whooping cough
The whooping cough vaccine for adults also contains diphtheria and tetanus protection in a combination vaccine.
Adults who should be vaccinated with whooping cough vaccine if they have not had a dose in the last 10 years include:
- childcare workers
- healthcare workers
- pregnant women from 20 weeks gestation, in every pregnancy
- any adult who wants to reduce their likelihood of becoming ill with whooping cough
- family members, grandparents and people in contact with infants less than six months of age, including other household members
- all adults aged 65 years and older
- adults needing a tetanus boost at any time, and at 50 years of age when tetanus boosting is recommended
- people with a history of whooping cough infection – people who have had whooping cough are still recommended to receive whooping cough vaccine as scheduled.
A booster dose of whooping cough vaccine is recommended for people who have not had one in the previous ten years. The vaccine takes about two weeks for immunity to develop after vaccination.
The following people should have a booster dose of whooping cough vaccine every ten years:
- all adults working with infants and young children less than four years of age
- all healthcare workers.
Pregnancy and whooping cough immunization
A combination vaccine against diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough is recommended from 20 to 32 weeks gestation in every pregnancy and at any time up to delivery. If the vaccine is given within two weeks of delivery, the newborn may not be adequately protected.
Read more about protecting your baby from whooping.
If you would like more information, ask your doctor.
Immunization and HALO
The immunizations you may need are decided by your health, age, lifestyle, and occupation. Together, these factors are referred to as HALO.
Talk to your doctor or immunization provider if you think you or someone in your care has health, age, lifestyle or occupation factors that could mean immunization is necessary. You can check your immunization HALO using the Immunisation for Life infographic.
Frequently Asked Questions about Whooping Cough
What are the 3 stages of whooping cough?
There are three recognized stages of the disease: catarrhal, paroxysmal, and convalescent. The incubation period for Pertussis is 7 to 10 days. During the first or catarrhal stage of the disease, the symptoms are mild and may go unnoticed or be confused with the common cold or influenza.
Is whooping cough dangerous?
Whooping cough is a very serious respiratory (in the lungs and breathing tubes) infection. It is caused by Bordetella pertussis bacteria. It can cause violent coughing fits. Whooping cough is most harmful to young babies and can be deadly.
How long does whooping cough last?
Coughing may last for several weeks, sometimes 10 weeks or longer. Scientific studies suggest that up to 1 in 20 adults with a cough that lasts for more than two or three weeks may have pertussis. The severity of symptoms may vary in adults.
What are the first signs of whooping cough?
The first symptoms of whooping cough are similar to those of a
- Common cold:
- Runny nose.
- Mild cough.
- Low-grade fever.
What happens if pertussis is left untreated?
If left untreated, whooping cough can be a serious infection that progresses from the throat and windpipe into a lung infection (pertussis pneumonia). Younger patients may need to be hospitalized, and one in 200 children with whooping cough will die from the infection.
Can you get pertussis if you’ve been vaccinated?
If pertussis is circulating in the community, there’s a chance that even a fully vaccinated person of any age can catch this very contagious disease. But if you received pertussis vaccines, your infection is usually less serious.
Is whooping cough a virus or bacteria?
Pertussis, respiratory illness is commonly known as whooping cough, is a very contagious disease caused by a type of bacteria called Bordetella pertussis. These bacteria attach to the cilia (tiny, hair-like extensions) that line part of the upper respiratory system.
What can mimic whooping cough?
Other respiratory illnesses can mimic pertussis, such as viral and other bacterial infections, asthma, and gastroesophageal reflux.
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