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Whooping cough in babies and children

7-minute read

Key facts

  • Whooping cough is a highly contagious bacterial illness which is characterised by a cough.
  • Whooping cough is spread respiratory droplets caused by coughing and sneezing.
  • Whooping cough is very serious in babies under 6 months of age, who are usually admitted to hospital.
  • Immunisation will stop most children from getting whooping cough.

What is whooping cough?

Whooping cough (pertussis) is an infection caused by the bacteria bordetella pertussis. Whooping cough spreads in droplets that travel through the air when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

Common signs of the infection include flu-like symptoms followed by severe coughing episodes.

Whooping cough is highly contagious and can be serious, particularly for babies. Vaccination is the best way to protect your baby from whooping cough.

What are the symptoms of whooping cough?

Whooping cough in babies and children has 3 distinct phases:

  1. Stage 1 — a build-up of mucus with a runny nose, sneezing and mild cough. This lasts about one week.
  2. Stage 2 — coughing spells that can last for up to 10 weeks.
  3. Stage 3 — recovery as the cough becomes less frequent.

Whooping cough symptoms usually appear 7 to 10 days after infection.

A child with whooping cough is contagious in the first 1 – 2 weeks of infection. They remain infectious for 2 to 3 weeks after they begin to cough.

Children

A coughing episode can be very severe. It can be painful for your child and a difficult experience for you to watch.

Your child might have difficulty breathing while coughing and you might notice a 'whooping' sound when they are finally able to take a breath.

After a bad coughing episode, your child may vomit. Your child's cough is likely to get worse during the night and they might struggle to sleep.

Babies

Young babies with whooping cough may have apnoeas (pauses in breathing) instead of a bad cough. Young children are particularly at risk from whooping cough. In severe cases, these pauses may be life-threatening and your baby may turn blue. Whooping cough can be life threatening.

If your baby or child has any breathing difficulties call triple zero (000) and follow the operator's instructions.

How do babies and children catch whooping cough?

The whooping cough infection is spread by droplets in the air that are created when an infected person coughs or sneezes. It can also be transmitted by touching surfaces that have come into contact with these droplets.

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

Ensure your family practices good hygiene, including washing hands often and thoroughly.

Try to teach your child to cover their nose and mouth while coughing or sneezing. This will help prevent the spread of infection.

How can I prevent the spread of whooping cough?

You should keep your infected child away from school, day-care and other children until they are no longer infectious. Your doctor can tell you when this will be.

It's very important to keep your infected child away from any babies under 6 months. This is because they are particularly vulnerable to whooping cough.

Close contacts of children with whooping cough are sometimes given antibiotics, particularly if they are vulnerable to infection.

If your child has whooping cough, ask your doctor whether you or other family members need antibiotics.

What if I think my child has whooping cough?

If you think your child 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 lets staff protect other people in the waiting room.

How is whooping cough diagnosed?

If you think your child has whooping cough, visit your doctor. They may:

  • take a swab test of their nose or throat
  • do a blood test

The results of these tests will tell your doctor if your child has whooping cough.

Whooping cough is a notifiable disease. If your child has whooping cough, your doctor will tell your local public health unit. The public health unit may talk with you to try and find out:

  • where your child caught whooping cough
  • who your child has been in contact with (contact tracing)

This helps limit the spread of whooping cough and protects your community.

How is whooping cough treated?

Treatment for whooping cough will depend on your child's age and how severe their symptoms are.

Babies under 6 months of age are likely to be admitted to hospital and watched closely.

Older children who are very sick will also need to go to hospital.

Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics. This reduces the chance of your child spreading the infection to others. Even with antibiotics, your baby may continue to cough for weeks after becoming infected.

How can I protect my child from catching whooping cough?

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

Babies need to be vaccinated against whooping cough at:

  • 2 months
  • 4 months
  • 6 months
  • 18 months
  • 4 years

Babies are particularly vulnerable to whooping cough before they reach the age of 6 months.

Another booster vaccination is provided during the first year of high school.

It takes around 2 weeks for the vaccination to become effective.

Under the National Immunisation Program (NIP), these vaccines are free of charge for these ages. However, if your child has not been vaccinated at the recommended ages, speak with your doctor. Catch-up vaccinations against whooping cough are free for eligible children.

Partners, grandparents, carers and other adults who have contact with babies should have the whooping cough vaccine.

Complications of whooping cough

Other infections are common when children have whooping cough, such as: pneumonia and middle ear infections.

Babies are most at risk of being hospitalised or even dying from whooping cough.

About 1 in every 125 babies with whooping cough, who are under the age of 6 months, dies from pneumonia or brain damage.

Resources and support

If you have any questions or concerns about about whooping cough, speak to your doctor or child health nurse.

Learn more about how whooping cough during pregnancy can affect you and your baby.

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.

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