A smiling older man standing amongst products in a shop.

Whooping cough is more contagious than the flu and affects people of all ages. It can cause serious disease in babies and complications in older adults. By keeping up to date with immunisations you can help protect yourself and those around you.

Did you know?

  • In Australia, whooping cough outbreaks occur every three to four years.1
  • Infants less than 6 months of age are at greatest risk of serious disease and death due to whooping cough.
  • Family members are an important source of infection and have been linked to just over half of infant whooping cough cases.1
  • In adults, whooping cough can cause ongoing problems such as a prolonged cough (100-day cough), sleep disturbance and rib fractures.
  • Up to 1 in 10 diagnosed cases in older adults end up in hospital.2
A woman gently lowering a baby in to a bed.

What is it?

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

It causes repeated attacks of violent coughing which may be followed by the classic ‘whoop’ noise when trying to breath in.

Complications can include pneumonia, seizures, brain damage and, in rare cases, death. In older adults, whooping cough can lead to pneumonia, rib fractures and fainting, and can increase the severity of asthma and chronic obstructive airways disease.

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

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of whooping cough generally occur between 7 to 20 days after infection and can last for up to three months.

Early symptoms are similar to a cold. The mild, irritating cough gradually develops into repeated bouts of violent coughing which are typically (but not always) followed by a 'whoop' sound when breathing in.

Other symptoms may include:

  • vomiting
  • fainting
  • exhaustion from sleep disturbance
  • poor appetite
  • dehydration

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

How is it spread?

Whooping cough is highly contagious. It is more infectious than the flu, mumps, polio, rubella and smallpox; and can be passed on to others for up to three weeks after symptoms first show.

It spreads from person to person through the air, such as when an infected person coughs or sneezes; and also, 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. Unfortunately, this is also when the symptoms are more cold-like and less specific to whooping cough – which means that adults, adolescents and siblings can unknowingly spread the disease to babies, young children and older adults.

Generally, people remain infectious for up to 21 days following the onset of symptoms.

Who is at risk?

Whooping cough can affect people of all ages. Immunity to whooping cough after infection or immunisation decreases over time (this is called waning immunity), which in turn increases your risk of infection. 

Those most at risk include:

  • infants less than 6 months of age, who are more likely to develop severe disease, complications or could die from the disease
  • adults aged 65 years and older, who are at greater risk of complications resulting in hospitalisation when compared to younger adults
  • adults who have not received a whooping cough booster in the last 10 years

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

Who should be vaccinated?

  • The whooping cough vaccine 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 boosters given at 18 months, 4 years and again between 10 and 15 years of age. It is given in a combined vaccine that also helps protect against other diseases.

    Speak to your doctor for more information.

    Immunisation schedule

    •  Immunisation funded via the National Immunisation Program (NIP)
    Diseases Birth 2 months 4 months 6 months 12 months 18 months 4 years 10 to <15 years 15-19 years
    Chickenpox (varicella)+                  
    A second dose of varicella vaccine is recommended any time between 4 years of age and less than 14 years, at least 4 weeks after the first dose. Speak to your doctor to learn more.
    Diphtheria                  
     
    Hepatitis A+                  
    Two doses of Hepatitis A vaccine are recommended and NIP-funded for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children at 12 months and 18 months living in certain areas. A two-dose schedule (which is not funded) is also recommended for some medically at-risk children and adolescents. Speak to your doctor to learn more.
    Hepatitis B+                  
    An additional booster vaccine is recommended at 12 months of age for preterm infants who were born at less than 32 weeks gestation or whose birth weight was under 2000 grams. Speak to your doctor to learn more.
    Haemophilus influenzae
    type b (Hib)
                     
     
    Human Papillomavirus (HPV)                  
     
    Measles                  
     
    Meningococcal ACWY disease+                  
    The meningococcal ACWY vaccine is strongly recommended (but not funded) for children less than 2 years of age, adolescents (15 - 19 years), Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (2 months - 19 years), and those aged at or above 2 months with certain medical conditions. A free dose is given at 12 months of age. For anyone wishing to reduce their risk of meningococcal disease the vaccine is recommended if their doctor deems it appropriate. Speak to your doctor to learn more or see who is most at risk of meningococcal disease here.
    Meningococcal B disease+                  
    The meningococcal B vaccine is strongly recommended (but not funded) for children less than 2 years of age, adolescents (15 - 19 years), Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people (2 months - 19 years), and those aged at or above 2 months with certain medical conditions. For anyone wishing to reduce their risk of meningococcal disease the vaccine is recommended if their doctor deems it appropriate. Speak to your doctor to learn more or see who is most at risk of meningococcal disease here.
    Mumps                  
     
    Pneumococcal disease+                  
    An additional dose of pneumococcal vaccine is recommended and NIP-funded at 6 months of age for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children. Two additional doses (at 6 months and 4 years) are recommended and NIP-funded for medically-at risk children. Further doses may be recommended and funded during adolescence depending on risk – speak to your doctor to learn more.
    Polio                  
     
    Rotavirus                  
     
    Rubella                  
     
    Tetanus                  
     
    Whooping cough (pertussis)                  
     
    Annual flu+      
     

     

     

     

     

     
    The influenza vaccine is recommended annually for all people aged 6 months and over. Influenza vaccine is funded under the NIP for those at or above 6 months of age with certain medical conditions and for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people aged 6 months to under 5 years and those aged at or above 15 years. Learn more about who should receive flu vaccination.
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  • A booster vaccination is recommended for anyone who wants to reduce their risk of catching whooping cough, including:

    • pregnant women in the third trimester (between 28 and 32 weeks of every pregnancy)
    • anyone who is in close contact with infants less than 6 months of age including parents, grandparents and childcare workers, if they haven't received a whooping cough vaccine in the last 10 years
    • healthcare workers if they haven't received a whooping cough vaccine in the last 10 years
    • adults aged 50 years who are due for a tetanus and diphtheria booster
    • adults aged 65 or over if they haven't received a whooping cough vaccine in the last 10 years
    • travellers if they haven't received a whooping cough vaccine in the last 10 years.

    Speak to your doctor for more information.

    Immunisation schedule

    •  Immunisation funded via the National Immunisation Program (NIP)
    •  Immunisation may be recommended by experts but is not funded
    Diseases All adults Planning for a baby Pregnancy 65 and over 70 to 79 years Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander adults
    Chickenpox (varicella)            
     
    Diphtheria            
     
    Hepatitis B            
     
    Measles            
     
    Meningococcal ACWY disease            
     
    Meningococcal B disease            
     
    Mumps            
     
    Pneumococcal disease+            
    Pneumococcal vaccine is recommended and funded for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples at 50 years of age, with a second dose recommended five years later. All non-Indigenous people can receive a free vaccine at 65 years of age. Women planning pregnancy who have risk factors for pneumococcal disease, including smokers and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander women, should be assessed for pneumococcal vaccination.
    Rubella            
     
    Shingles (Herpes zoster)+            
    The herpes zoster (shingles) vaccine is funded for adults aged 70 years, with a short-term catch-up program for adults aged 71-79. It is also recommended (but not funded) for all adults over 60 years of age.
    Tetanus            
     
    Whooping cough (pertussis)            
     
    Annual flu+            
    The influenza vaccine is recommended annually for all adults, and is funded for pregnant women (during any stage of pregnancy), people aged 65 and over, people with certain medical conditions and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
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  • If you’re travelling overseas, a whooping cough booster vaccine is recommended if you haven't received one in the last 10 years.

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

Treatment

In the early stages, whooping cough is treated with antibiotics, preferably within 21 days of the onset of the infection. While antibiotics won’t reduce the period of infection, they can help to reduce the risk of passing the disease onto others.

Hospitalisation is required in severe cases.

Important information

For information about whooping cough immunisation contact your doctor.

Some side effects may be experienced following immunisation. Please discuss any side effects or concerns with your doctor.

References

  1. Australian Technical Advisory Group on lmmunisatlon (ATAGI). The Australian immunisation handbook 10th ed (2017 update). Australian Government Department of Health. https://immunisationhandbook.health.gov.au/vaccine-preventable-diseases/pertussis-whooping-cough (accessed September 2018)
  2. Karki S et al. Vaccine 2015;33(42):5647-53.

AUS/VGU/0005/18 Date of Approval: November 2018