Whooping cough

Whooping cough (pertussis) is a highly infectious disease that is spread by coughing and sneezing. It’s a serious infection that causes a long coughing illness and can be life-threatening.


Whooping cough can be very serious for babies and children – especially those under 1 year old. If babies catch whooping cough, they

  • may not be able to feed or breathe properly.
  • may become so ill they need to go to the hospital.
  • could end up with serious complications such as pneumonia and brain damage.

To protect your baby, get your free immunisation during pregnancy and take your baby for their free immunisations when they’re 6 weeks, 3 months and 5 months old.


When it’s infectious

People with whooping cough are infectious from 6 days after exposure to the bacteria, when symptoms are like a normal cold, to 3 weeks after the ‘whooping’ cough begins – unless they are treated with antibioticsMany babies catch whooping cough from their older siblings or parents – often before they’re old enough to be vaccinated.

How common is whooping cough?

Most cases of whooping cough occur in adults whose immunity has faded. In these cases, symptoms tend to be less serious, although the persistent cough can be unpleasant and frustratingOutbreaks of the disease occur every 3–5 years.



The symptoms of whooping cough usually appear around a week after infection. This delay is known as the incubation period.Whooping cough tends to develop in 3 stages.

Initial stage (catarrhal stage)

During this stage, symptoms include:

  • a runny nose
  • sneezing
  • slight fever
  • a mild irritating cough
  • feeling generally unwell

This stage is when you’re most infectious. It lasts for 1 or 2 weeks.

The second stage (paroxysmal stage)

Coughing fits (paroxysms) are the main symptom in this stage. A paroxysm is a spasm of coughing followed by a big breath in or high-pitched ‘whoop’ in children. Babies and adults generally don’t have the high-pitched ‘whoop’.


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