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Whooping Cough

did you know?

In Australia, whooping cough epidemics occur every 3 to 4 years.

Whooping cough - What is it?

Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, is a highly contagious respiratory infection caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis.

The illness is characterised by repeated attacks of coughing which may be followed by the classic “whoop” when breathing in.

Pertussis occurs in all countries, including developed countries that have high vaccination rates.

Whooping cough - Who is at risk?

Whooping cough can affect people of all ages. Immunity to whooping cough after infection or immunisation decreases over time (waning immunity), leaving people at risk of infection.

Infants less than 6 months of age are at greatest risk of severe infection and death. Also, adults aged 60 years and older are at a greater risk of hospitalisation when compared to other adults.

Other people may be at risk of whooping cough. Please discuss your individual circumstances with your doctor.

Whooping cough - How is it spread?

Whooping cough is highly contagious and can be spread from person to person through the air, such as when an infected person coughs or sneezes. The disease can also be spread through direct contact with fluid from the nose or throat of an infected person.

An infected person is most infectious in the early stages of illness and will remain infectious up to 21 days following the onset of symptoms. Adults, adolescents and siblings are commonly a source of infection and can unknowingly spread the disease to babies and young children.

Whooping cough - What are the symptoms?

Symptoms generally occur between 7 to 20 days after infection.

Early symptoms of whooping cough are similar to a cold with a mild irritating cough which gradually develops into repeated bouts of coughing. The coughing is followed by a 'whoop' sound when breathing in, vomiting and exhaustion. However the 'whoop' is not always present.

Whooping cough can be associated with sleep disturbance, poor appetite, tiredness and dehydration, and can last for up to 3 months.

Complications of whooping cough include pneumonia (lung infection) which is the most common cause of death, seizures (fits), lack of oxygen to the brain which can cause brain damage, and rib fracture (more commonly in adults).

This is not a full list of symptoms that can occur following a whooping cough infection. Please speak to your doctor if you have any concerns about whooping cough.

Whooping cough – Vaccination

Pertussis booster vaccination is recommended for travellers to countries where health services are difficult to access, if they have not received a pertussis-containing vaccine in the last 10 years (or 5 years for travel that is considered high risk).

Whooping cough vaccination is recommended and provided free for children as part of the National Immunisation Program (NIP). It is usually given at 2, 4 and 6 months with a booster given at 4 years and again between 10 and 15 years of age.

A booster dose is also recommended at 18 months of age due to decreasing immunity overtime, however this dose is not funded.

Booster vaccination is also recommended for the following groups:

  • anyone who is in close contact with infants less than 6 months of age including parents, grandparents, childcare and healthcare workers
  • adults aged 50 years who are due for a tetanus and diphtheria booster
  • adults over 65 years of age if they haven’t received a dose in the last 10 years
  • adults who would like to reduce their risk of whooping cough infection

If you are planning on becoming pregnant, please discuss with your doctor whether vaccination against whooping cough is appropriate for you.

In Australia, vaccination against whooping cough is provided in combination vaccines that also help to protect against other diseases.

Whooping cough – Treatment

In the early stages, whooping cough is treated with antibiotics, preferably within 21 days of the onset of the infection. However this does not shorten the course of infection, the aim is to reduce the risk of transmission to others. Hospitalisation is required in severe cases.

It is important to plan ahead and see your doctor at least 6 to 8 weeks before you travel to discuss vaccination and travel health.


Some side effects may be experienced following vaccination. Please discuss any side effects or concerns with a healthcare professional.




AUS/VAC/0046/15. Date of approval: April 2015.