Whooping cough (pertussis) is a serious, contagious, respiratory infection caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis. It is particularly serious in young children. One in every 200 babies who contract the infection will die. Whooping cough can be prevented by immunisation.
Whooping cough (pertussis) is a serious, contagious, respiratory infection caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis. The disease begins like a cold and then the characteristic cough develops. This cough may last for months, even after antibiotic treatment is completed and the person is no longer infectious.
The 'whoop' (which is not always obvious) is due to a deep breath at the end of a bout of coughing. Vomiting after coughing is common.
Whooping cough is particularly dangerous for babies aged less than six months. They are affected more seriously by the disease than older children or adults and are more likely to develop complications.
One in every 200 babies who contract whooping cough will die. Immunisation is the best way to prevent whooping cough.
Symptoms of whooping cough
Whooping cough begins with symptoms similar to those of a cold. These can rapidly progress to include:
- Severe cough, which occurs in bouts of coughing
- Characteristic 'whooping' sound on inhalation
- Vomiting at the end of a bout of coughing
- Apnoea – the child stops breathing for periods of time and may go blue.
Complications of whooping cough
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:
- Haemorrhage (bleeding)
- Apnoea (stopping breathing for periods of time)
- Inflammation of the brain
- Convulsions and coma
- Permanent brain damage
How whooping cough is spread
The Bordetella pertussis bacterium is spread by airborne droplets from the upper respiratory tract (when the infected person coughs or sneezes) and is highly infectious. The time from infection to appearance of symptoms (incubation period) for whooping cough is between six and 20 days.
A person is infectious for the first 21 days of their cough or until they have had five days of a 10-day course of antibiotics. In countries where immunisation rates are high, the risk of catching whooping cough is low.
In Victoria, most reports of whooping cough currently occur in adults over 20 years of age. Recent research has shown that parents and family members are the main source of whooping cough infection in their baby.
Diagnosis of whooping cough
Whooping cough should be diagnosed and treated immediately. There are a number of tests for whooping cough, but they are not always reliable and the results may take some time. Treatment should not be withheld while waiting for these results.
Treatment for whooping cough
In its early stages, the symptoms of whooping cough can be reduced by taking antibiotics. Treatment will reduce the risk of passing the infection to others, if it is given in the first 21 days of the illness.
Members of the infected person's household are at increased risk of acquiring the disease and are usually prescribed a strong antibiotic such as erythromycin as a preventative measure, even if they are fully immunised.
Immunisation can prevent whooping cough
A combined vaccine against whooping cough and other diseases is available under the National Immunisation Schedule. In Victoria, it is given free of charge to all children. Children need to follow the full schedule of vaccines to be fully protected.
Some adults should also be vaccinated. The whooping cough vaccine for adolescents and adults also contains diphtheria and tetanus protection in a combination vaccine. Immunity provided by the vaccine fades after six to ten years.
Whooping cough immunisation for babies and children
The vaccine is given free to young children when they are:
- Two, four and six months of age – diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, hepatitis B, polio and haemophilus influenzae type b vaccine. The two-month vaccine can be given as early as six weeks of age
- Four years of age – diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis and polio vaccine.
Whooping cough immunisation for adolescents
The vaccine is given to adolescents when they are in Year 10 at secondary school as a booster dose of diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis vaccine.
Immunisation and HALO
The immunisations you may need are decided by your health, age, lifestyle and occupation. Together, these factors are referred to as HALO.
HALO is defined as:
- Health – some health conditions or factors may make you more vulnerable to vaccine-preventable diseases. For example, premature birth, asthma, diabetes, heart, lung, spleen or kidney conditions, pregnancy, Down syndrome and HIV will mean you may benefit from additional or more frequent immunisations.
- Age – at different ages you need protection from different vaccine-preventable diseases. Australia’s National Immunisation Program schedule sets out recommended immunisations for babies, children, older people and other people at risk, such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Most recommended vaccines are available at no cost to these groups.
- Lifestyle – lifestyle choices can have an impact on your immunisation needs. Travelling overseas, planning a family, sexual activity, smoking, and playing contact sport that may expose you directly to someone else’s blood, will mean you may benefit from additional or more frequent immunisations.
- Occupation – you are likely to require additional or more frequent immunisations if you work in an occupation that exposes you to vaccine-preventable diseases or puts you into contact with people who are more susceptible to problems from vaccine-preventable diseases such as babies or young children, pregnant women, the elderly, and people with chronic or acute health conditions. Workers in aged care, childcare, healthcare, emergency services or sewerage repair and maintenance need to discuss their immunisation needs with their doctor. Some employers help with the cost of relevant vaccinations for their employees.
Before whooping cough immunisation
Before you receive the vaccine, tell your doctor or nurse if:
- You or your child have had a serious reaction to, or are allergic to, any vaccine or vaccine component (for example, neomycin)
- You or your child are unwell on the day of immunisation (temperature over 38.5 ˚C)
- You are pregnant.
Side effects of the whooping cough vaccine
Immunisation prevents people from catching whooping cough or at least protects them from a severe bout should they become infected. Severe reactions to the vaccine are rare and much less common than the symptoms that occur with the disease itself.
Common reactions to the vaccine are usually mild, occur soon after immunisation, last a day or two and do not require treatment. Some of the mild side effects of the vaccine include:
- A mild temperature
- Irritability or crying (your child may appear generally unsettled)
- Drowsiness or tiredness
- Soreness and swelling in the area where the injection was given.
Reducing the side effects of the whooping cough vaccine
Side effects of the vaccine can be reduced by:
- Placing a cold, wet cloth on the sore injection site
- If there is a fever, giving extra fluids to drink and not overdressing
- Taking paracetamol to reduce any fever or discomfort – check the label for the correct dose (especially for children). If you are concerned about any reaction to the vaccine, contact your doctor or hospital
Where to get help
- Your doctor
- Maternal and child health nurse
- NURSE-ON-CALL Tel. 1300 60 60 24 – for expert health information and advice (24 hours, 7 days)
- Immunisation Section, Department of Health Victoria Tel. 1300 882 008
- Immunise Australia Program Information Line Tel. 1800 671 811
- SAEFVIC (Victorian vaccine safety service) Tel. 1300 882 924, or (03) 9345 4143
Things to remember
- Whooping cough (pertussis) is a very contagious respiratory infection caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis.
- The major symptom of whooping cough is the characteristic cough, which is often followed by a 'whooping' sound on inhalation.
- One in every 200 babies who contract whooping cough will die.
- It is possible to prevent whooping cough by immunisation.
You might also be interested in:
- Coughing and wheezing in children.
- Immunisation - childhood.
- Infections - bacterial and viral.
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Last reviewed: October 2012
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