Whooping cough (sometimes called pertussis) is a serious respiratory infection that causes a long coughing illness. In babies, the infection can sometimes lead to pneumonia and occasionally brain damage and can be even life threatening. Older children and adults can get whooping cough and can spread it to others, including babies.

Identify symptoms

  • Whooping cough starts like a cold with a blocked or runny nose, sneezing, a mild fever and an occasional cough.
  • The cough gets worse and severe bouts of uncontrollable coughing develop. Coughing bouts can be followed by vomiting, choking or taking a big gasping breath which causes a “whooping” sound. The cough can last for many weeks and can be worse at night.
  • Some newborns may not cough at all but stop breathing completely and turn blue. Other babies have difficulties feeding or they can choke and gag.
  • Older children and adults may just have a mild cough that doesn't go away. In adults the cough commonly lasts 5-7 weeks, sometimes longer. In China, whooping cough is known as the 100-day cough!

Why is whooping cough so serious?

Whooping cough can just be an annoying cough for adults and older children but for babies it can sometimes be life threatening. Severity is closely related to a baby's age. Newborns and premature infants are at greatest risk. Whooping cough in babies can lead to:

  • apnoea (pauses in normal breathing)
  • pneumonia
  • frequent vomiting
  • feeding problems leading to weight loss
  • seizures or brain damage when breathing problems, heart failure or pneumonia interfere with oxygen getting to the brain.
  • very low blood pressure which can lead to failure of other organs.

Some babies need treatment in hospital and some require treatment in intensive care. Older children don't usually have life-threatening infections and only rarely require hospitalisation.

Older people can develop pneumonia (especially smokers or in people with asthma). Other complications from repeated severe coughing can include bleeding into the whites of the eyes, fainting or dizziness, urinary incontinence, rib fractures and strained chest wall muscles.

Protect baby

  • Vaccination during pregnancy (preferably at 20-32 weeks) means your body produces antibodies that get passed onto your baby before birth. These antibodies will protect your baby until they are ready to receive their own vaccinations at 6 weeks of age. 
    • the whooping cough vaccine is usually given to pregnant women at 28 weeks of each pregnancy, but can be given any time between 20-32 weeks
    • for women who have been identified as being at high risk of early delivery, the vaccine should be given as early as possible (from 20 weeks)
    • if the vaccine was not received during pregnancy, it should be administered as soon as possible after birth.
  • Immunise your baby on time, starting at 6 weeks of age, so they can be protected as soon as possible. If your baby's vaccines are overdue, speak to your GP about catching up.
  • Check if your baby has been vaccinated. Look at their Blue Book, speak to your GP or ring the Australian Childhood Immunisation Register on 1800 653 809. You can also check the register online.
  • Whooping cough vaccine is effective but doesn't protect all babies. You still need to watch out, even if your baby is immunised.
  • Keep people with a cough away from your baby.

Protect older children

  • By immunising older children, you give them some protection against whooping cough. This also helps to stop spread to others see immunisation for further details.
  • Check if your child has been vaccinated. Look at their Blue Book, speak to your GP or ring the Australian Childhood Immunisation Register on 1800 653 809. You can also check the register online.
  • Remember that even immunised children can sometimes catch whooping cough, but their illness is often milder.
  • More information about the NSW school immunisation program: Info on high-school program

Protect adults

  • Adults can get whooping cough and can spread the infection to babies. They may just have mild symptoms and may not realise that their cough could cause harm.
  • If you're a new parent, you can top-up your immunity by getting a whooping cough booster. Pregnant women should be vaccinated during each pregnancy, preferably at 20-32 weeks. Boosters are also recommended for grandparents and anyone else caring for infants for further information please see immunisation.

Whooping cough booster is also recommended for:

  • adults working with young children, especially childcare workers
  • health care workers

If you need a tetanus booster, ask if you can have the booster that protects against tetanus, diphtheria and whooping cough (pertussis) all in one (dTpa vaccine) rather than just tetanus alone.

Prevent spread

A person with whooping cough can spread it to others in the first 3 weeks of illness. Bacteria coughed into the air can be inhaled by babies, children, or adults nearby. These people are then in danger of getting whooping cough, usually about a week later. It spreads easily through families, childcare centres and schools, so it's important to act fast.

See your GP

Anyone with symptoms should see a doctor as soon as possible. Your GP can test for whooping cough. Early diagnosis is especially important for new parents and people who have regular contact with babies.


If whooping cough is detected early enough, your doctor may prescribe a course of antibiotics. After 5 days of antibiotic treatment, enough bacteria are killed to stop spread to others, although their cough can linger for weeks.

Without antibiotics, people with whooping cough can spread the infection in the first 3 weeks.

In some situations, other people who have been in contact with an infectious person may also need antibiotics to help prevent them getting whooping cough, especially if they are babies or if they have close contact with babies. This is called prophylaxis.

Stay home

People diagnosed with whooping cough should stay away from work, school or childcare until no longer infectious. Ask your doctor for a medical certificate and find out when it's safe to return.

You don't want to pass whooping cough on. It's a good idea to stay away from others if you're coughing and especially stay away from babies.

Current as at: Tuesday 11 February 2020
Contact page owner: Communicable Diseases