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Diseases / Whooping Cough

Whooping Cough

What is it

Whooping cough is a highly contagious respiratory infection. It is mild in adults, but can be life-threatening if passed to babies.Whooping cough is also called pertussis.1

Who is at risk and what are the symptoms

Anyone can catch the infection that causes whooping cough and it generally takes seven to 20 days for symptoms to appear. It is called the ‘100-day cough’ because symptoms can last up to three months. At the onset, whooping cough begins like a cold with a blocked or runny nose, sneezing, mild fever and a cough. Then, the cough worsens and can develop severe bouts of uncontrollable coughing. This can be followed by vomiting, choking or taking a big gasping breath which creates the “whooping” sound. In some cases, babies have difficulties eating, drinking and can choke or gag. Whooping cough is particularly dangerous for babies under the age of 12 months. Older children and adults may just have a persistent cough.1,2

How is it spread

Whooping cough is spread from person to person through respiratory droplets, which can be transmitted in the air by coughing or sneezing or from other forms of close contact with an infected person. Whooping cough is highly contagious; once someone catches it there is an 80-90% chance someone else in their household will catch it too.1 Whooping cough can be passed to others before symptoms appear. A carrier is contagious in the first three weeks of their illness.1,2

How is it prevented

Families with a newborn child should speak to a doctor about vaccine prevention, which is recommended as part of routine childhood immunisation in Australia.1 Babies receive vaccination at two, four and six months of age, with boosters at 18 months, four years and 10-15 years. A single booster dose is also recommended for adults planning a family and for grandparents and others who care for young children.1

How is it diagnosed and treated

If someone has suspected whooping cough a General Practitioner (GP) should be consulted immediately. A doctor can diagnose whooping cough by taking a swab from the back of the nose. In the early stages, whooping cough is treated with antibiotics which can help prevent the spread of the disease. After 5 days of antibiotics, the infected person is normally no longer infectious but the cough often continues for many weeks. 2

Where to get help

A GP or paediatrician can advise on whooping cough vaccinations.


  1. Immunise Australia Program:
  2. NSW Health Factsheets Pertussis