Whooping cough

Whooping cough (Pertussis) is a well-known disease, but equally scary and serious – that can lead to pneumonia and brain damage. Find out if you or your family is at risk, and how you can prevent its spread.

Whooping cough (or pertussis) is a serious disease that can lead to pneumonia, fits and brain damage from prolonged lack of oxygen. Those at the highest risk include:

  • babies under 6 months as they are not yet old enough to be fully vaccinated
  • people living in the same household as someone with whooping cough
  • people who have not had a whooping cough booster in 10 years.

Babies are at high risk. Most hospitalisations and deaths occur in babies less than 6 months of age. For babies and young children, whooping cough can be life threatening. Older children and adults may get a milder case of the disease. For some adults, the coughing can persist for up to 3 months, leading to sleep disturbance or even rib fracture.

Signs and Symptoms

Whooping cough often starts with:

  • runny nose
  • sneezing
  • tiredness.

After that, severe coughing bouts begin to develop. These bouts usually end with a whooping noise as air is drawn back into the chest. They can also lead to gagging, vomiting and trouble breathing. The bouts of coughing may continue for many weeks even after treatment.

Babies under 6 months of age, vaccinated children, adolescents and adults may not have the typical whoop.

How it spreads

Whooping cough bacteria are highly infectious. It is spread by an infected person coughing and sneezing. It can also be passed on through direct contact with secretions from the mouth or nose.The time between exposure to the bacteria and getting sick is usually 7 to 10 days but can be up to 3 weeks. A person is most infectious in the early stages of their illness. Unless treated with antibiotics for 5 days, a person is regarded as infectious for 3 weeks after the first sign of any cough; or 14 days after the start of the coughing bouts.


To prevent spreading, a person with whooping cough should stay away from work, school or childcare. They can return after at least 5 days of antibiotics, or 21 days after the first sign of any coughing or 14 days after the severe coughing began.

If people who have had close contact with an infectious person are not fully vaccinated, they may need to stay away from places with young children or pregnant women.

Vaccination is the best protection. Pregnant women are advised to be vaccinated between 20 – 32 weeks of gestation to protect their unborn child (until they are old enough to be vaccinated). Your doctor can advise on this.

If you have been in contact with an infectious person, closely monitor your health. If you develop signs of whooping cough in the 3 weeks after, immediately remove yourself from contact with others until you have seen a doctor. If you are confirmed to have whooping cough, it is best for you to stay home while you are sick.


Antibiotics may reduce the time a person is infectious and reduce symptoms. To be effective, antibiotics need to be given within 21 days of the start of general symptoms or within 14 days of the start of the coughing bouts.

Some people who have had contact with an infected person may need antibiotics to prevent infection. This includes people at high risk of serious complications (i.e. children aged less than 6 months); and those who could spread it to children. Seek the advice of your doctor to reduce the risk of infection in yourself and/or others.

Contact your doctor or health provider, or call 13 HEALTH (13 43 25 84) for more information.

If you have any of the whooping cough symptoms contact your doctor or health provider, and advise them before your visit or on arrival, so that control measures can be put in place.