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Disease

Whooping Cough

Page last updated on 04 July 2022

Whooping cough is widespread in Australia and is one of the least controlled vaccine-preventable diseases. It is a highly contagious and affects people of all ages. 

Vaccination is the most effective way to prevent whooping cough. Vaccination is available at your doctor’s surgery.  In addition, some pharmacies around Australia can also provide pertussis vaccination for persons aged 16 years and older, depending on local legislation. 

Speak to your doctor if you are unsure about your vaccination status.

Key disease information

What is whooping cough?

Whooping cough (also called pertussis) is a highly contagious respiratory infection caused by the bacteria Bordetella pertussis. Epidemics in Australia occur every 3 to 4 years.

Whooping cough and its complications can be serious and even life-threatening to babies. About half of babies less than 1 year old who get whooping cough need care in the hospital. Sadly, 1 out of 100 babies hospitalised will die due to complications of whooping cough.

In adults, whooping cough and its complications are usually less severe, although can still result in hospitalisation, time off work and the risk of infecting vulnerable people.  Adults account for half of whooping cough cases each year.

How is whooping cough spread?

Whooping cough is typically spread from person to person through tiny droplets in the air containing the bacteria. These droplets are created by coughing or sneezing. You can also get infected from other forms of close contact with an infected person, like kissing or sharing food.

Symptoms of whooping cough generally appear between 7 and 20 days after infection, and infected people are most contagious up to about 21 days after the cough begins.

    Did you know?

    • Evidence indicates family members are the source of 50% of infant pertussis infections
    • Whooping cough is one of the most contagious viral diseases in the world, as contagious as the measles and more contagious than chicken pox.
    What are the symptoms of whooping cough?

    Whooping cough usually begins like a cold. Early symptoms can last for 1 or 2 weeks and may include:

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

    The cough can gradually get worse and severe bouts of uncontrollable coughing can develop. Coughing bouts can be followed by vomiting, choking, or taking a big gasping breath, which causes a ‘whooping’ sound. The cough can last for many weeks and can be worse at night.

    Some newborns may not cough at all but they can stop breathing and turn blue. Some babies have difficulties feeding and can choke or gag.

    The severity of symptoms may vary in adults. Scientific studies suggest that up to 1 in 20 adults with a prolonged cough have whooping 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
    • Loss of bladder control
    • Rib fracture from severe coughing
    • Passing out

    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 3 adults 
    • rib fracture from severe coughing in 1 out of 25 adults
    • passing out in 3 out of 50 adults   
    Is it a cold, flu or whooping cough?

    Your doctor is the best person to determine if your cough is caused by a virus (eg. influenza or the common cold), or a bacterial infection (eg. whooping cough). There are also other causes of a chronic cough and it is always best to consult your doctor. 

    Whooping cough does however have a few distinctive traits. These traits are most observable 1 to 2 weeks after first being exposed. 

    • Coughing fits that continue for long periods and are exhausting to the body. These coughing fits happen more at night. 
    • Gasping for breath after a coughing fit. They may make a “whooping” sound. This sound is where the name “whooping cough” comes from. Babies may not cough or make this sound—they may gag and gasp.
    • Difficulty breathing, eating, drinking, or sleeping because of coughing fits.
    • Turning blue (while coughing) from lack of oxygen.
    • Vomiting after coughing fits.
    How is whooping cough treated?

    Antibiotics can be used to treat whooping cough in the early stages to help prevent transmission of bacteria to others. People who are not treated early with the right antibiotics can spread the infection in the first 3 weeks of their illness. The cough often continues for many weeks, despite antibiotics.

    Who is at risk of whooping cough?

    Anyone can get whooping cough. While it is most dangerous to babies, it can still affect adolescents and adults. It’s important to remember that natural infection does not provide long-term protection and repeat infection can occur. 

    Babies who are too young to be fully immunised are at increased risk of whooping cough.  Some Australians, due to their age or circumstances, area at an increased risk of contracting the disease and are especially recommended to get vaccinated.

    These people include: 

    • Babies
    • Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding
    • Healthcare workers
    • Early childcare workers
    • People in close contacts with infants

    The longer it’s been since you were last vaccinated, the more at risk you can be of contracting the disease if you are exposed to an infected person. As immunity diminishes over time, you can still get whooping cough even if you've been vaccinated previously. 

    Talk to your healthcare professional if you have concerns about your immunisation status.
     

    How to prevent whooping cough?

    The best way to prevent whooping cough is to get vaccinated. In Australia, the vaccination is given free via the National Immunisation Program to infants, children, adolescents and some adult groups.

    The vaccination is a combination vaccine which protects against other diseases. Talk to your healthcare professional about which one is suitable for you. 

    In addition to vaccination, practicing good hygiene habits will help you reduce the risk of getting sick. 

    • Avoid people who are sick or unwell
    • Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds
    • Use hand sanitiser if soap and water are not available
    How often is the whooping cough vaccine given?

    The whooping cough vaccine is effective, but protection against whooping cough after vaccination reduces over time.

    If you are unsure whether you or your child needs to be immunised against whooping cough, visit your GP to find out when you were last immunised. 

    Vaccination against whooping cough is available through the National Immunisation Program for the following groups of people.

    Babies and young children:

    • the vaccine is given at 2, 4, 6, 18 months and 4 years of age

    Adolescents

    • a booster dose is given through school programs at 12 to 13 years of age. 
    • Adolescents who missed the school vaccination may be able to see their doctor to get the free vaccine. 

    Adults

    • pregnant women between mid-2nd trimester and early 3rd trimester (between 20 and 32 weeks gestation) of each pregnancy. Vaccination during pregnancy protects the newborn, especially in the first 6 weeks of life, via antibodies that cross the placenta. 

    Talk to your doctor about whooping cough prevention.

    If you’re an adult, do you need to get the whooping cough vaccine?

    The Australian Immunisation Handbook recommends vaccination for adults wishing to reduce their likelihood of illness from whooping cough.

    Vaccination is especially recommended for certain risk groups, or those in contact with risk groups, including:

    • Women who are pregnant or breastfeeding
    • Healthcare workers
    • Early childcare workers
    • People in close contact with infants
    • Adults aged 65 years and over

    Talk to your doctor about whooping cough prevention. 

    Where can I get more information regarding whooping cough and its prevention?

    Information is available from:

    • your GP or healthcare professional
    • some pharmacies
    • healthcare clinics

    VaccineHub offers general information only. Please see a healthcare professional for medical advice

    Find a doctor near you

    Sources & Citations

    1. The Australian Immunisation Handbook. Pertussis (whooping cough). Available at: https://immunisationhandbook.health.gov.au/vaccine-preventable-diseases/pertussiswhooping-cough (accessed 28 March 2022).

    2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pertussis Clinical features. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/pertussis/clinical/features.html (accessed 28 March 2022).

    3. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. Whooping cough in Australia. Available at: https://www.aihw.gov.au/getmedia/303c1ab7-9b04-4544-9c5d-852c533ac87a/aihw-phe-236_WhoopingCough.pdf.aspx (accessed 28 March 2022).

    4. NCIRS. Pertussis factsheet. Available at: https://ncirs.org.au/sites/default/files/2019-04/pertussis-fact-sheet_April%202019_Final.pdf (accessed 28 March 2022).

    5. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pertussis Complications. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/pertussis/about/complications.html (accessed 28 March 2022).

    6. The Geography of Transport Systems. Basic Reproduction Number (R0) of Major Infectious Diseases. Available at: https://transportgeography.org/?page_id=20352 (accessed 28 March 2022).

    7. Pimentel AM, et al. Braz J Infect Dis 2015;19(1):43–46.

    8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pertussis Frequently asked questions. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/pertussis/about/faqs.html (accessed 28 March 2022).

    9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pertussis Prevention. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/pertussis/about/prevention/index.html (accessed 28 March 2022).

    10. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pertussis Treatment. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/pertussis/clinical/treatment.html (accessed 28 March 2022).

    11. Australian Government, Department of Health. National Immunisation Program Schedule. Available at: https://www.health.gov.au/health-topics/immunisation/immunisation-throughout-life/nationalimmunisation-program-schedule#national-immunisation-program-schedule-from-1-july-2020 (accessed 28 March 2022).

    12. Smartraveller.gov.au. Infectious diseases. Available at: https://www.smartraveller.gov.au/before-yougo/health/diseases (accessed 28 March 2022).

    MAT-AU-2200966  Date of preparation June 2022

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