Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, is an infectious disease of the airways caused by the bacteria Bordetella pertussis. It can affect persons of any age and is particularly serious and occasionally life-threatening for children aged under 1 year.

Whooping cough is most infectious in the first two weeks.The symptoms of whooping cough usually appear around a week after infection. Symptoms start just like a common cold – runny nose, sneezing, slight fever and a mild irritating cough. After a week or two coughing fits (paroxysms) are the main symptom. 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’.

Paroxysm symptoms 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

Whooping cough can last up to three months and is sometimes called the 100-day-cough.

People who are infectious should stay away from others, especially babies, young children and women who are pregnant.

How is it spread?

Whooping cough is spread in the air by droplets from an infected person when they sneeze or cough.

Prevention

Immunisation is the best way of preventing whooping cough. If your child is immunised against whooping cough, they are much less likely to catch it, and if they do catch it, they are less likely to be severely affected.

Antibiotics can be given if early enough. The person with whooping cough should be off work, school or preschool until he/she has taken 5 days of a course of antibiotic. If the antibiotic is not taken, the person should be kept away from others for three weeks from the onset of the cough.