Whooping cough is a highly contagious respiratory (lung) infection caused by the Bordetella pertussis bacteria (germ). In adults or adolescents this infection causes a chronic cough with a distinctive whooping sound. In babies and young children the whooping sound is usually not heard and the cough can be life threatening.
In babies, whooping cough can cause serious complications such as:
- Pneumonia (lung infection).
- Seizures (fits).
- Brain damage from prolonged coughing episodes and lack of oxygen.
- Death (more common in children under six months).
Who is at an increased risk of getting whooping cough?
Anyone who is not immunised is at risk of catching whooping cough, however, some groups are at higher risk of catching whooping cough or of developing complications
- Any person who is not immunised (this includes people who have not had a booster vaccine in the past 10 years).
- Infants under six months of age.
- Pregnant women.
- People over 65 years of age.
Whooping cough often starts with a cold or flu like illness. This includes, runny nose, sneezing, tiredness over several days and after this a cough develops. Coughing fits can be long and frequent. In small children this can be very scary to see. They often have trouble breathing and coughing is frequently followed by vomiting or gagging. The name whooping cough comes from the noise of the cough that ends with a ‘whoop’ sound when the air is drawn back into the chest. In small children and infants, the coughing episodes may result in the child turning blue or they may stop breathing (This is a medical emergency – call triple 000 immediately). These coughing episodes can last for weeks, even after the person has had appropriate antibiotic treatment. This is why whopping cough can be called the “the 100 day cough”.
How is whooping cough spread?
It is spread when the infected person coughs or sneezes. Fine droplets are expressed into the air and breathed in by the susceptible person. You may also touch a surface that has infected secretions on it, then touch your face or mouth.
A person is infectious for around 21 days from the start of symptoms. If the infected person is treated with antibiotics (medication) they will be infectious for the first 5 days of treatment. The cough will persist for several weeks, however, once treated with antibiotics the bacteria (germs) are killed and the person is no longer infectious.
Children should remain away from school, day care, child care, pregnant mothers and infants under 6 months until they are no longer at risk of spreading the infection to others. This will depend on if antibiotic treatment has been provided. Your health care team can advise.
Catching whooping cough can be prevented by having the vaccine. In children the whooping cough vaccine is given at six weeks of age, and again at four and six months. Further boosters are given at 18 months and four years. Childhood vaccines do not give lifelong immunity. A further booster is recommended between 11-13 years. It is recommended that adults get a booster vaccination every 10 years. Pregnant women should receive a booster vaccination in every pregnancy.
How is whooping cough diagnosed?
The doctor may order a swab of your child’s nose, throat or sample of sputum to send to the laboratory. A blood test is not effective in diagnosing whooping cough.
How is whooping cough treated?
Hand hygiene is very important in preventing the spread of any disease. “Cough etiquette” or “respiratory hygiene” is important in preventing respiratory diseases. Cover coughs and sneezes using a tissue or your sleeve. Wash or clean your hands after coughing or sneezing. Please do not visit if you are unwell. If you are unwell and must visit, ask for a mask.
When should you clean your hands?
You and your child should always clean hands:
- Before handling anything that goes in your mouth or their mouth
- Before preparing or eating food or drinks
- After going to the toilet
- After using a tissue or handkerchief
- After handling rubbish
- After handling dirty washing
- After coming into contact with an affected area (avoid touching wherever possible).
It is very important that your health care workers clean their hands alcohol-based hand rub or soap/ antiseptic and water before and after providing care for your child. If you don’t see them cleaning their hands it’s OK to ask: “Have you cleaned your hands?”
What other precautions are taken?
Special precautions to minimise risk of spreading Whooping cough to other children in the hospital will be used, such as placing your child in a single room and using personal protective equipment such as gloves, gowns and mask while caring for your child. This is known as ‘transmission- based precautions’. Your child will also be asked to stay in their room, unless they are receiving tests and treatment. However, they can receive visitors from the school and entertainment services if they are not able to leave their room. Our staff will also advise if it is OK for your child to go for a walk outside the hospital.
If my child has whooping cough can they have visitors?
Yes, your child can have visitors, however, we recommend that no infants under 6 months or those who may have chronic lung disease or a suppressed immune system come to visit.
What happens when we visit the outpatients department or return to the hospital after discharge?
If the period in which your child is infectious has passed, no precautions are required. You would be able to sit in the waiting room with the other families as long as you have taken all the medication prescribed.
Do I have to tell the school, pre-school / kindergarten, other parents, sports groups or camps?
Yes, whooping cough is a notifiable disease under the Public Health Act. Your Public Health Unit will make contact with you about your child’s school or day care facility.
If you have any questions, please ask the infection control team or the healthcare worker caring for your child.
Infection Management and Prevention Service
Queensland Children’s Hospital
501 Stanley Street, South Brisbane 4101
t: 07 3068 4145 (nurses)
t: 07 3068 1558 (administration)
t: 07 3068 1111 (general enquiries)
In an emergency, always call 000.
If it’s not an emergency but you have any concerns, contact 13 Health (13 43 2584). Qualified staff will give you advice on who to talk to and how quickly you should do it. You can phone 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
Queensland Health. Communicable Disease Control Branch. (2015). Whooping Cough (Pertussis) Notifiable condition information.
Red Book of Infectious Diseases (2015). Summaries of Infectious Diseases, Pertussis.
Heymann, D. (Ed) 2015. Control of Communicable Diseases Manual, 20th edition. Washington, DC: American Public Health Association.