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Disease Information / Whooping Cough

Whooping Cough

Whooping cough is widespread in Australia and is one of the least controlled vaccine-preventable diseases.1 It is highly contagious and affects people of all ages.

Vaccination is the most effective way to prevent whooping cough.

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.1 Epidemics in Australia occur every 3 to 4 years.1

Whooping cough can be serious, even life-threatening to babies. About half of babies younger than 1 year old who get whooping cough need care in the hospital. Sadly, 1 out of 100 babies hospitalised will die due to complications2. In adults, whooping cough it is less deadly, however it can cause serious health complications for some adults. Between 2011 and 2016, 50.3% of whooping cough reports were in adults.3


Whooping cough is typically spread from person to person through tiny droplets in the air containing 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.4

Symptoms of whooping cough appear between 7 and 10 days after infection, and infected people are most contagious up to about 2 weeks after the cough begins.1

Did you know?

  • If you introduce whooping cough to a household, non-immune members of the household have an 80% chance of getting the infection4
  • If you’re infected with whooping cough, it’s estimated that on average you’ll pass it on to 5 unvaccinated people5


Whooping cough usually begins like a cold. Early symptoms can last for 1 or 2 weeks and can include:

  • a blocked or runny nose
  • sneezing
  • mild fever
  • a cough6

The cough can 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 weeks2 and can be worse at night.11

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.11

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.13

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 4 adults
  • rib fracture from severe coughing in 1 out of 25 adults
  • passing out in 3 out of 50 adults10


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.11


Anyone can get whooping cough. While it is most dangerous to babies10, it is actually more common in adolescents and adults3. 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.1

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:

  • babies
  • people with asthma or COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)7
  • healthcare professionals
  • childcare workers
  • the elderly 7
  • smokers 7

Anyone with asthma or lung disease is more at risk of complications if they get whooping cough.8

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. 11

Talk to your healthcare professional if you have concerns about your immunisation status.

How often is the whooping cough vaccine given?

The whooping cough vaccine is effective, but protection against whooping cough after vaccination reduces over time.11

If you are unsure whether you or your child need 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 age9
  • adolescents who missed the school vaccination may be able to see their doctor to get the free vaccine. Check with your state government to see if catch up vaccinations are available in your state.

If you’re an adult do you need to get the whooping cough vaccine?

Some adults are at increased risk of whooping cough, including:

Pregnant women

  • the vaccine is recommended during their third trimester of each pregnancy

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 GP about your immunisation status

The Australian Immunisation Handbook recommends vaccination for “any adult who wishes to reduce the likelihood of becoming ill with pertussis.”1

Where can I get more information regarding whooping cough and its prevention?

Information is available from:

  • your GP or healthcare professional
  • some pharmacies
  • healthcare clinics

Sources & references

  1. NHMRC. The Australian Immunisation Handbook. 2013; 10th edition: Pertussis: 302 – 316. Available at:
  2. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Available at:
  3. National Notifiable Diseases Surveillance System (NNDSS). Available at:
  4. Australian Government Department of Health, Immunise Australia Program: Pertussis (Whooping Cough). Available at:
  5. Kretzschmar M et al. PLoS Med 2010;7(6):e1000291. Available at:
  6. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Available at:
  7. De Serres G et al. Morbidity of pertussis in adolescents and adults. J Infect Dis 2000;182:174-9. Available at:
  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Available at:
  9. National Immunisation Program Schedule. Available at:
  10. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Available at:
  11. NSW Health. Available at:
  12. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Available at: