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.
To protect your baby, get your free immunisation during pregnancy and take your baby for their free immunisations when they’re 6 weeks, 3 months and 5 months old.
When it’s infectious
People with whooping cough are infectious from 6 days after exposure to the bacteria, when symptoms are like a normal cold, to 3 weeks after the ‘whooping’ cough begins – unless they are 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?
Most cases of whooping cough occur in adults whose immunity has faded. In these cases, symptoms tend to be less serious, although the persistent cough can be unpleasant and frustrating
Outbreaks of the disease occur every 3–5 years. New Zealand’s most recent outbreak began in August 2011, peaking from August 2011 until December 2013, with about 11,000 cases notified (379 new cases per month). A total of 3 deaths in young children occurred during this period.
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The symptoms of whooping cough usually appear around a week after infection. This delay is known as the incubation period.
Whooping cough tends to develop in 3 stages.
Initial stage (catarrhal stage)
During this stage, symptoms include:
- a runny nose
- slight fever
- a mild irritating cough
- feeling generally unwell
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’.
The paroxysmal symptoms of whooping cough may include:
- intense bouts of coughing, which bring up thick phlegm
- a ‘whoop’ sound with each sharp intake of breath after coughing
- vomiting after coughing, especially in infants and young children
- tiredness and redness in the face from the effort of coughing
Babies and young children often appear very ill, and may turn blue and vomit from coughing so much.
This stage usually lasts 2 to 3 weeks but can persist for up to 10 weeks.
Third stage (recovery 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
- are un-vaccinated
When to seek immediate medical advice
You should seek immediate medical advice if:
- you have a baby of 6 months or younger who appears to be very ill
- you (or your child) appear to be experiencing significant breathing difficulties such as extended periods of breathlessness
- you (or your child) develop serious complications, such as seizures (fits) or pneumonia, an infection that causes inflammation of the tissues in your lungs
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.
Whooping cough is normally treated with antibiotics at home. The antibiotics will stop you being infectious after 5 days of taking them (this can be shortened to 2 days if azithromycin is used). Try to keep away from other people during this time – keep your child home from school or preschool.
However, without antibiotics, you may still be infectious until 3 weeks after your intense bouts of coughing start
Young babies (less than 1 year old) with whooping cough may need hospital treatment to avoid developing complications.
If your child is admitted to hospital to be treated for whooping cough, they are normally put into an isolation room. This is to stop the infection spreading to other patients.
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. It is important that you complete the course of antibiotics
- Your doctor will also tell you how to care for yourself or your child at home while you’re recovering.
If whooping cough is diagnosed in the later stages, it is unlikely that you will be prescribed antibiotics as you will no longer be infectious and they will not improve your symptoms.
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.
The vaccines used are INFANRIX- hexa, INFANRIX-IPV and Boostrix.
All babies in New Zealand can be immunised against whooping cough as part of their free childhood immunisations. (New Zealand Immunisation Schedule)
It’s important to protect babies from whooping cough by getting immunised while you are pregnant, and immunising babies on time – 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 18.
Who else is the vaccine recommended for?
Pregnant women should get a whooping cough booster vaccination from 16 weeks' gestation onwards. At this time, the mother can pass her immunity on to the baby, helping protect them until they are old enough to be vaccinated themselves.
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 (e.g., those with chronic respiratory conditions, congenital heart disease or immunodeficiency).
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).
Immunising against whooping cough during pregnancy protects about 90% of babies in their first few weeks of life.
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 unexpected 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 midwife, doctor or practice nurse or call the free helpline 0800 IMMUNE (0800 466 863).