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Whooping cough (Bordetella pertussis)

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Whooping cough is a highly infectious bacterial disease with cold-like symptoms progressing to a cough. After several days, there may be severe coughing bouts during which the person may become breathless, red in the face and may sound as if they are choking and possibly vomit.

Sometime a whoop is heard as the person breathes in after coughing. However, small babies do not usually whoop. Whooping cough can affect people of any age but is more serious in children under 2 years of age, and in particular, babies under 3 months old, who may have trouble taking a breath after a bout of coughing.

How long does it last?

The cough may last for up to three months (it is also known as the 100-day cough). Vaccinated or partially vaccinated people may still develop whooping cough, although the disease is usually milder for them.

How is it caught?

Whooping cough is one of the easiest infectious diseases to pass on to other people. It is spread by coughing and develops within six to 20 days (usually nine to 10 days) of a person coming into contact with the disease.

Whooping cough is caught from the lung secretions of an infected person and by droplets produced by coughing or sneezing. A person is infectious for three to four weeks from the onset of the first symptoms.

How is it treated?

If you think you or your child may have whooping cough, visit your family doctor (GP). Your GP will check, test and treat if needed with a special antibiotic. Antibiotics can shorten the infectious period and reduce symptoms but will not usually stop the cough altogether.

Keep away from others, especially children under 1 year old and women in the late stage of pregnancy.

Stay away from work, community gatherings and school or preschool until you or your child have been taking antibiotics for at least two to five days depending on which antibiotic you've been given. Your doctor will be able to advise you on this.

If the antibiotic is not taken, the infected person should be kept away from others for 21 days from the onset of the cough.

The cough is often distressing for preschoolers, but bed rest, plenty of fluids and small bland meals can be helpful in management and may lessen the cough's trigger factors. Keep in contact with your doctor, especially if the illness persists.

How is spread prevented?

On-time immunisation is the best way of preventing the disease and controlling it in the community.

Five free pertussis (whooping cough) vaccinations are given by local doctors as part of the National Childhood Immunisation Schedule. Discuss this with your family doctor.

Immunised children may still develop whooping cough, but it is usually not as severe.

How are infected people treated to prevent spread?

Sometimes antibiotic treatment is given to people who have been in contact with a whooping cough victim. It aims to prevent spread to under 1-year-olds who are more likely to develop severe disease.

Where there is a household or preschool with a child under 1 year at risk because a person has recently been diagnosed with whooping cough, members of the household or preschool may need antibiotics. Community and Public Health arranges this when told of a case by a GP or hospital doctor – Phone (03) 364-1777.

If a person contracts whooping cough in a household where there is a woman in the late stage of pregnancy, all people in that household should also receive a course of antibiotics to prevent possible spread to the newborn child.

If you have any questions, or believe a family member may have contracted, or been exposed to a person with whooping cough, contact your family doctor.

Written by Partnership Health Canterbury. Adapted by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed February 2018. Last updated February 2019.

See also:

Whooping cough vaccine for pregnant women

Page reference: 43384

Review key: HIWHO-45653