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Whooping cough and pregnancy

7-minute read

Key facts

  • Whooping cough (pertussis) is a highly contagious bacterial illness.
  • Whooping cough is very serious in babies under 6 months of age.
  • Whooping cough can be prevented through vaccination.
  • Pregnant women should be vaccinated against whooping cough between 20 and 32 weeks during every pregnancy.

What is whooping cough?

Whooping cough is also known as pertussis. It is caused by a bacterial infection of the throat. The bacteria are known as bordetella pertussis. They spread through droplets that travel in the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

Whooping cough is both serious and highly contagious. Common signs of the infection include flu-like symptoms and coughing episodes.

In rare cases, whooping cough can lead to:

  • pneumonia
  • brain damage
  • death

Whooping cough is very serious in young babies. It's a good idea to protect yourself and your baby from whooping cough by getting vaccinated during pregnancy.

What are the symptoms of whooping cough?

Whooping cough usually starts with:

  • a runny nose
  • sneezing
  • a mild cough

This progresses to episodes of coughing will be followed by deep breathing or a 'whooping' sound.

Usually, whooping cough symptoms are milder in adults than in children. However, you may have coughing episodes for many weeks after infection, even with treatment.

Symptoms generally show 7 to 10 days after you have been in contact with an infected person.

If you experience breathing difficulties call triple zero (000) and follow the operator's instructions. Be sure to tell them you are pregnant

How is whooping cough spread?

The whooping cough infection is spread by respiratory droplets that are created by coughing and sneezing. It can also be transmitted by surfaces that have come into contact with respiratory droplets.

Whooping cough is highly contagious and spreads quickly in families. Most household contacts who aren't vaccinated will develop whooping cough.

Cover your nose and mouth while coughing or sneezing. This helps prevent the spread of infection.

Make sure you practice good hygiene, such as washing hands often and thoroughly.

When should I see my doctor?

If you think you might have whooping cough, it's important to see your doctor.

Be sure to call ahead and let the receptionist know of your concerns. This way, staff can protect other people in the waiting room.

How can whooping cough affect my pregnancy?

Babies under 2 months of age are at a higher risk of getting whooping cough. This is because they are too young to be vaccinated.

While pregnant, take extra care to stay away from people who might be infected with whooping cough. This is because your newborn can catch whooping cough from you after they are born.

The best way to prevent whooping cough in you and your baby is to get vaccinated. Unvaccinated women and their babies are at particular risk of developing whooping cough.

How is whooping cough treated?

Antibiotics are the most effective treatment for whooping cough. Antibiotics will:

  • help you recover from the symptoms of whooping cough
  • reduce the time you are infectious to others

Your doctor can prescribe a course of antibiotics for you.

Many people continue to cough for several weeks, even after antibiotic treatment. This does not mean the antibiotics have not been effective.

Close contacts of people with whooping cough are sometimes also given antibiotics.

If you're pregnant and live or work with someone with whooping cough, speak with your doctor.

How can I prevent whooping cough?

The best way to protect your baby from whooping cough is through vaccination.

The Australian National Immunisation Program (NIP) recommends that all pregnant women are vaccinated against whooping cough. This should happen between 20 and 32 weeks during every pregnancy. This vaccination is free of charge for pregnant women.

You can still be vaccinated after 32 weeks, but if you receive the vaccination within 2 weeks of giving birth, your baby may not be fully protected.

Getting vaccinated while you're pregnant protects you and your baby from whooping cough. When you are vaccinated, your body makes antibodies. While pregnant, these antibodies are passed on to your baby. These antibodies help to protect your baby until they are old enough to be vaccinated themselves.

Even if you are vaccinated during your pregnancy, your baby will still need their routine vaccinations. These start from 6 weeks of age.

Is it safe to have the whooping cough vaccination during pregnancy?

Yes — it's safe for you to receive the whooping cough vaccination while pregnant. This helps protect your baby for the first few months of their life.

I had a whooping cough vaccination during my last pregnancy, do I need another one?

Yes — you should be vaccinated during every pregnancy. This is because the immunity you get from the whooping cough vaccine fades over time.

If I've had whooping cough before, do I still need to be vaccinated?

Yes — you can become reinfected with whooping cough.

Should anyone else in my family be vaccinated?

Yes — make sure that your whole family is up-to-date with their whooping cough vaccinations.

Family and friends who will be spending time with your baby should be vaccinated against whooping cough. Anyone who hasn't had a whooping cough vaccination in the past 10 years should get one. This should be at least 2 weeks before they see your baby.

The more people who are vaccinated in a community, the harder it is for the infection to spread.

Resources and support

If you have any questions or concerns about whooping cough during pregnancy, speak to your doctor.

Find out how babies and children can catch whooping cough, how to treat your child at home, and when to have them vaccinated.

Speak to a maternal child health nurse

Call Pregnancy, Birth and Baby to speak to a maternal child health nurse on 1800 882 436 or video call. Available 7am to midnight (AET), 7 days a week.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: June 2023

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Call us and speak to a Maternal Child Health Nurse for personal advice and guidance.

Need further advice or guidance from our maternal child health nurses?

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