Whooping cough (pertussis) is a highly infectious disease that is spread by coughing and sneezing. It’s caused by bacteria which damage the breathing tubes.
Whooping cough can be very serious for babies and children – especially those under 1 year old. If babies catch whooping cough, they:
- may not be able to feed or breathe properly.
- may become so ill they need to go to hospital.
- could end up with serious complications such as pneumonia and brain damage.
The best way to protect your baby from whooping cough is to take them for their free immunisations when they’re 6 weeks, 3 months and 5 months old.
When it’s infectious
The disease is most infectious in the first couple of weeks, when symptoms are like a normal cold. Whooping cough continues to be infectious 3–4 weeks after the cough starts, unless you’re treated with antibiotics.
Many babies catch whooping cough from their older siblings or parents – often before they’re old enough to be vaccinated.
How common is whooping cough?
Whooping cough is common in New Zealand. We have an outbreak of the disease every 3–5 years. The most recent outbreak began in August 2011 and is still ongoing.
- Since the outbreak began, more than 11,500 cases* of whooping cough have been reported.
- During the epidemic in 2004–2005, more than 5000 cases were reported. In 2004, 159 children were hospitalised, and 1 child died.
*as at July 2014
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Whooping cough can be divided into 3 stages.
Initial stage (catarrhal stage)
During this stage, symptoms include:
- a runny nose
- slight fever
- a mild irritating cough.
This stage is when you’re most infectious. It lasts 1 or 2 weeks.
Second stage (paroxysmal stage)
Coughing fits (paroxysms) are the main symptom in this stage. A paroxysm is a spasm of coughing followed by a big breath in or high-pitched ‘whoop’ in children. Babies and adults generally don’t have the high-pitched ‘whoop’.
Babies and young children often appear very ill, and may turn blue and vomit from coughing so much.
This stage usually lasts 2 to 4 weeks but can persist for up to 10 weeks.
Third stage (convalescent stage)
During this stage, the cough gradually gets better. After several weeks the cough disappears. However, for months you may still get coughing fits whenever you get a respiratory infection like a cold.
When to see your doctor
See your doctor if you think you or a family member may have whooping cough, particularly if they:
- have prolonged coughing spasms
- turn blue while coughing
- cough with a whooping sound.
In babies whooping cough is very serious and may require hospitalisation.
If you’ve got whooping cough, it’s important to stay away from others – especially babies, young children and pregnant women.
See your doctor
If you think you or a family member may have whooping cough, see your doctor as soon as possible.
Your doctor can test to see whether it is whooping cough.
- If it is whooping cough, you may be given antibiotics.
- Your doctor will also tell you how to care for yourself or your child at home while you’re recovering.
Antibiotics can reduce how long you’re infectious for, but unless they’re given early, they may not reduce your symptoms. You’ll stop being infectious after 5 days of antibiotic treatment. Try to keep away from other people during this time – keep your child home from school or preschool.
If you or a family member has whooping cough, try these ideas.
- Warm drinks may be soothing and help break the coughing spasm.
- A humidifier in the bedroom may help (it must be cleaned every 2 or 3 days).
- Use saline nose drops to help remove thick mucus.
- Drink lots of clear fluids.
- Keep away from things that trigger coughing, like cigarette smoke, perfumes or pollutants.
Call Healthline 0800 611 116 if you are unsure what you should do.
Help stop the spread of whooping cough
- Make sure all your children are up to date with their immunisations.
- Keep your baby away from anyone with a cough.
- If you have a cough yourself, stay away from babies.
- If you’ve got a cough that won’t go away, see your doctor.
All babies in New Zealand can be immunised against whooping cough as part of their free childhood immunisations.
It’s important to protect babies from whooping cough by getting them immunised on time. They’re not protected until they’ve had all 3 doses – at 6 weeks, 3 months and 5 months old.
Booster doses are given to children when they’re 4 and 11 years old.
What if my child is behind with their vaccinations?
If your baby or child hasn’t been immunised, talk to your GP or practice nurse. They can arrange a time for your child to be immunised. It’s never too late to catch up. Whooping cough vaccine is free for all children under 16.
Who else is the vaccine recommended for?
Pregnant women can get a whooping cough booster vaccination for free.
Other adults can receive booster vaccinations for a cost. Immunisation is recommended if:
- your work involves regular contact with infants
- you live with or care for infants under 12 months of age – even if the baby has been fully immunised.
Boosters should also be considered for other people who are vulnerable to whooping cough and at high risk of severe illness or complications (eg, those with chronic respiratory conditions, congenital heart disease or immunodeficiency).
This disease is covered on the New Zealand Immunisation Schedule. The vaccines used are INFANRIX®- hexa, INFANRIX-IPV™ and Boostrix™.
How effective is the vaccine?
Around 84% of babies are protected once they’ve completed 3 doses of vaccine (at 6 weeks, and 3 and 5 months of age).
Protection wanes over time. People can get whooping cough some years later, even if they’ve been immunised or have had it before. That’s why it’s important for 4 and 11-year-olds to have booster immunisations.
Making a decision about immunisation
Risks associated with whooping cough
- The cough may last up to 3 months.
- It can lead to pneumonia.
- It can lead to brain damage, convulsions and death. The risk of brain damage ranges from about one in 100 to one in 1000.
Risks associated with the vaccine
- In some overseas trials of acellular pertussis, between 0.7 and 2.6 recipients in 10,000 had fits or ‘shock-collapse’ – neither of which cause long-term problems. These reactions have not happened in overseas trials of the vaccine now being used in New Zealand.
- There is no association between the vaccine and sudden inexpected death in infancy (SUDI, formerly known as sudden infant death syndrome or SIDS).
- Anaphylaxis is very rare.
Immunisation is your choice. If you have questions, talk to your doctor or practice nurse or call the Immunisation Advisory Centre free helpline 0800 IMMUNE (0800 466 863).