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 and also in some pharmacies around Australia in the NSW, ACT, NT, QLD, SA, TAS and VIC.
Speak to your doctor if you are unsure about your vaccination status.
Key disease information
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 can be serious, 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.
In adults, whooping cough it is less deadly, however it can cause serious health complications for some. Between 2013 and 2019, half of whooping cough reports were in adults.
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 10 days after infection, and infected people are most contagious up to about 2 weeks after the cough begins.
Did you know?
- If you introduce whooping cough to a household, non-immune members of the household have an 90% chance of getting the infection
- Whooping cough is one of the most contagious viral diseases in the world, as contagious as the measles and more contagious than chicken pox.
Whooping cough usually begins like a cold. Early symptoms can last for 1 or 2 weeks and may include:
- a blocked or runny nose
- 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 4 adults with a cough that lasts for more than 2 or 3 weeks may 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 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
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. Also known as the 100 day cough.
- 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.
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.
Anyone can get whooping cough. While it is most dangerous to babies, it is actually more common in adolescents and adults. It’s important to remember that natural infection does not provide long-term protection and repeat infection can occur.
Babies are at increased risk until they’ve had at least 3 doses of vaccine at 2, 4 and 6 months of age.
Some Australians, due to their age or prior medical condition, are at an increased risk of contracting the disease and may have more severe complications.
These people include:
- people with asthma or COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)
- healthcare professionals
- childcare workers
- the elderly
Anyone with asthma or lung disease is more at risk of complications if they get whooping cough.
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.
Whooping cough can be prevented.
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 other 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 an alcohol-based hand rub if soap and water are not available
- Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze.
- Put your used tissue in the waste basket.
- Cough or sneeze into your upper sleeve or elbow, not your hands, if you don’t have a tissue.
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.
The Australian Government recommends the following schedule (National Immunisation Program Schedule) for vaccination against whooping cough:
Babies and young children:
- the vaccine is given at 2, 4, 6, 18 months and 4 years of age
- a booster dose is given through school programs at 10 to 15 years of age. the age of when you receive the vaccine varies by state and territory
- Adolescents who missed the school vaccination may be able to see their doctor to get the free vaccine.
- 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.3 The vaccine is free from the government.
Talk to your doctor about whooping cough prevention.
The Australian Immunisation Handbook recommends vaccination for adults, including those in special risk groups, or contact with a special risk group. Adults that have an increased risk of whooping cough include:
- the vaccine is recommended between mid 2nd trimester and early 3rd trimester (between 20 and 32 weeks gestation) of each pregnancy. Vaccination during pregnancy protects the newborn via antibodies that cross the placenta. The vaccine is free from the government
Healthcare and childcare workers, and anyone in contact with infants, including grandparents and fathers
- to protect infants and vulnerable people around them – check with your doctor about your immunisation status
Adults aged 65 years and over
- the vaccine is recommended if you have not received one in the previous 10 years.
Talk to your doctor about whooping cough prevention.
Information is available from:
- your GP or healthcare professional
- some pharmacies
- healthcare clinics
Sources & Citations
- Australian Government. Department of Health. National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System. Number of notifications for pertussis, Australia, 1991 to 2019 and year-to-date notifications for 2020. Available at: www9.health.gov.au/cda/source/rpt_3.cfm (accessed 25 March 2020).
- Pillsbury A, et al. Commun Dis Intell 2014;38(3):E179–E194.
- The Australian Immunisation Handbook. Pertussis (whooping cough). Available at: https://immunisationhandbook.health.gov.au/vaccine-preventable-diseases/pertussis-whooping-cough (accessed 25 March 2020).
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pertussis frequently asked questions. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/pertussis/about/faqs.html (accessed 25 March).
- Australian Government. Department of Health. National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System. Number of notifications of Pertussis*, Australia, 2013 by age group and sex. Available at: www9.health.gov.au/cda/source/rpt_3.cfm (accessed 25 March 2020).
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pertussis Causes and Transmission. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/pertussis/about/causes-transmission.html (accessed 25 March).
- The Geography of Transport Systems. Basic Reproduction Number (R0) of Major Infectious Diseases. Available at: https://transportgeography.org/?page_id=20352 [accessed 05 May 2020].
- Pimentel AM, et al. Braz J Infect Dis 2015;19(1):43–46.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pertussis Complications. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/pertussis/about/complications.html (accessed 25 March).
- De Serres G, et al. J Infect Dis 2000;182(1):174–79.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Vaccination of Adults with Lung Disease Including Asthma. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/vaccines/adults/rec-vac/health-conditions/lung-disease.html (accessed 25 March).
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Pertussis Prevention. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/pertussis/about/prevention/index.html (accessed 25 March).
SPANZ.SAPAS.18.04.0136(1) - Date of preparation May 2020Show All