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Whooping Cough

Did you know that adults can catch whooping cough too

Healthy adults

Half of whooping cough cases in Australia are in adults.

It’s easy to think of whooping cough (also called pertussis) as a disease that only affects children and babies. But whooping cough in adults is more common than you might think. 


In 2016, over 20,000 Australians caught whooping cough and over 8,499 of these people were adults.

Adults aged 20 years or older accounted for more than half of all the whooping cough cases reported in Australia between 2011 and 2016.

Whooping cough is a highly contagious disease, spreading to 90% of susceptible household contacts.
Whooping cough epidemics occur every 3 to 4 years.

Although serious and life-threatening to babies, whooping cough can also cause serious health complications in adults. One of the most common symptoms of whooping cough is the persistent or “100 day cough”.

When left untreated or undiagnosed symptoms of whooping cough can continue to worsen and manifest in the following:

•    fits of rapid coughs followed by a high-pitched ‘whoop’ sound
•    vomiting during or after coughing fits
•    exhaustion after coughing fits

Many Australians have been vaccinated as a child, infant and adolescent. However, vaccinations received in childhood do not provide adequate protection against the disease in adult years. This is because immunity after vaccination diminishes over time, therefore leaving people at a greater risk of catching the disease. 

If you are unsure if you are up to date with your vaccinations, speak to your healthcare professional.  

The Australian Immunisation Handbook recommends vaccination for “any adult who wishes to reduce the likelihood of becoming ill with pertussis.”

Family having fun at the beach

How do you get whooping cough?

As whooping cough is a highly contagious disease, it can be caught whenever an infected person comes in contact with a susceptible person.

Simply put, whooping cough is spread from person to person through a fine mist of tiny droplets in the air. These tiny droplets are transmitted between people through close contact with an infected person. In an infected person, the tiny droplets contain the bacteria Bordetella pertussis. This bacterium gives its name – pertussis – to the disease we commonly call whooping cough.

If you breathe in the tiny droplets of bacteria, you become exposed to the highly contagious disease. You can also get whooping cough from sharing food or drinks or from close contact like kissing.

What are the symptoms and complications of whooping cough?

If you are exposed to whooping cough – and your immunity is low – you would typically develop symptoms within 5 to 10 days.

Whooping cough often begins like a cold. In a typical case, your symptoms might include:

  • a blocked or runny nose
  • sneezing
  • mild fever
  • a cough

Complications of whooping cough are usually less serious in adults, especially if you have been vaccinated. In one study, the most common complications reported were:

  • weight loss in 1 out of 3 adults
  • loss of bladder control in 1 out of 4 adults
  • passing out in 3 out of 50 adults
  • rib fracture from severe coughing in 1 out of 25 adults
I had my vaccinations as a child – aren’t I still protected?

The whooping cough vaccination is provided at 2, 4 and 6 months then again at 18 months, 4 years and during adolescence under the National Immunisaiton Program. However, protection against whooping cough will decrease over time and many adults will no longer be protected.   

See your healthcare professional to talk about your vaccination status.

When should I check my whooping cough immunity?

You can check your immunisation status with your GP or healthcare professional at any visit.
If you are planning a trip overseas, you could speak to your GP or travel medicine specialist and discuss vaccination options suitable for you. 


Sources & Citations

  1. Australian Government Department of Health. National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System. Available at:
  2. NHMRC. The Australian Immunisation Handbook. 2013; 10th edition: Pertussis: 302 – 316. Available at: home~handbook10part4~handbook10-4-12
  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Available at:
  4. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Available at
  5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Available at:

SPANZ.ADAC.17.12.0287(1) - Date of preparation July 2018