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Whooping cough in babies and children

5-minute read

What is whooping cough?

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

Common signs of the infection include flu-like symptoms and severe coughing episodes. Whooping cough is both serious and highly contagious, particularly for babies. Vaccination is the best way to protect your child from whooping cough.

What are the symptoms of whooping cough?

Symptoms usually appear 7 to 10 days after infection. Normally, whooping cough will start with flu-like symptoms such as a runny nose, tiredness and a mild fever. You might notice a cough, which comes and goes in episodes and is followed by deep breathing, causing a ‘whooping’ sound. Young children are particularly at risk, and in severe cases, whooping cough could be life threatening.

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

How will my child feel if they have whooping cough?

Your child’s cough is likely to worsen during the night and they might struggle to sleep. A coughing episode can be very severe — it can be painful for your child and a difficult experience for you to watch. After a coughing episode, your child may vomit or faint. In serious cases, coughing attacks can be intense enough to break a child’s ribs.

Some babies with whooping cough do not experience a bad cough, or may even not cough at all. These babies might instead turn blue in the face or take pauses from breathing. If your child experiences any difficulty breathing, they should be taken to hospital.

Is whooping cough contagious?

Whooping cough is highly contagious and spreads quickly in families and places where children gather, like kindergartens and schools. Because not every infected person shows symptoms, it’s possible that a child is infected without your knowing. A child with whooping cough is contagious from up to 3 weeks before they show symptoms, and up to 3 weeks after they begin to cough.

How can I prevent the spread of whooping cough?

You should keep an infected child away from school, kindergarten and other children until they are no longer infectious — your doctor can tell you when this will be. Try to teach your child to cover their nose and mouth while coughing or sneezing since this will help prevent the spread of infection. Ensure your family observes good hygiene practices, including washing hands often and thoroughly. It is especially important to keep an infected child away from a baby under 6 months because they are particularly vulnerable to the infection.

Close contacts of children with whooping cough are sometimes prescribed antibiotics, particularly if they are vulnerable; examples include young babies and pregnant women. If your child has whooping cough, ask your doctor whether you or other family members need antibiotics or vaccination.

Does my child need to see a doctor?

If you think your child has whooping cough, call your doctor and tell staff before you go so they can advise you on the safest way to see the doctor without infecting others. Your doctor can diagnose your child with a swab test of their nose or throat, or with a blood test.

The doctor may prescribe antibiotic treatment, and it is important to begin this as early as possible to reduce the chances of spreading the infection to others. Even with antibiotics, your child may continue to cough for weeks after becoming infected.

Some babies will require hospitalisation or even intensive care because of their symptoms.

How serious is whooping cough?

Among people infected with whooping cough, babies are the ones most at risk of being hospitalised or even dying from the disease. Approximately 1 in every 200 babies younger than 6 months of age with whooping cough dies from pneumonia, brain damage or other complications.

How can I protect my child from whooping cough?

The best way to protect your child from whooping cough is through on-time vaccination. Ensure your whole family, as well as any friends that will be seeing your baby in the first month, has up-to-date whooping cough vaccinations. It takes around 2 weeks for the vaccination to become effective.

The more people who are vaccinated in a community, the harder it is for the infection to spread. This is especially important if you or your partner are planning a pregnancy or are pregnant.

Babies need to be vaccinated at 6 to 8 weeks of age, and again at 4 months and 6 months before they are sufficiently protected against the disease. This is why they are particularly vulnerable before they reach the age of 6 months. Boosters should be given at ages 4 and 15 for the best protection during childhood.

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, they can still receive a free catch-up vaccination against whooping cough up until 20 years of age.

Are you pregnant or planning a pregnancy?
Learn more about how whooping cough during pregnancy can affect you and your baby.

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Last reviewed: April 2021

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