Health conditions

Whooping cough (pertussis)

What is whooping cough?

Whooping cough is an infection of the respiratory tract caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis.

Whooping cough affects people of all ages. It is most serious in infants, especially those under 6 months old who are too young to be fully vaccinated.

How do you get whooping cough?

Whooping cough is spread by infected people coughing or sneezing. Untreated, a person with whooping cough can spread the infection to other people for up to 3 weeks after onset of the cough.

Who is most at risk?

Anyone can get whooping cough. People living in the same household as someone with whooping cough are most likely to become infected.

Immunisation greatly reduces the risk of infection, but protection wanes over time, and infection may still occur.

Signs and symptoms

The time between exposure and getting sick is usually 7 to 10 days, but can be up to 3 weeks.

Whooping cough usually begins just like a cold, with a runny nose, tiredness and sometimes a mild fever.

Coughing then develops, which may occur in bouts. Sometimes a cough is followed by a deep gasp or whoop, especially in unvaccinated children.

People may vomit after a bout of coughing.

Whooping cough can be dangerous for babies

Whooping cough can be very serious in babies and young children, especially those under 6 months.

Complications in young children can include:

  • pneumonia
  • brain damage from lack of oxygen suffered during bouts of coughing
  • death.

Older children and adults tend to have a less serious illness, but they can still have persistent coughing for several weeks, regardless of treatment.

How do I know I have whooping cough?

Only a medical professional can make a diagnosis of whooping cough. To help confirm the diagnosis your doctor may take a swab from the back of your nose or throat and/or run a blood test.

If you suspect you have whooping cough

  • You should stay away from school or work until you have been diagnosed and treated. It is very important not to expose young children to infection.

Notifiable disease

Whooping cough is a notifiable disease. This means doctors, hospitals and laboratories must inform the Department of Health of your diagnosis. Notification is confidential.

Department of Health staff may talk to you or your doctor to find out how the infection occurred, to identify other people at risk of infection, to let you know about immunisation and to tell you if you need to stay away from work, school or other group gatherings.

Treatment of whooping cough

An antibiotic is used to treat whooping cough, and can prevent the spread of infection.

People often continue coughing for many weeks after treatment, but they are no longer infectious after completing a course of antibiotics, or after 3 weeks if untreated.

How can whooping cough be prevented?

  • Vaccination is the best way to prevent whooping cough.
  • Babies need up to 3 doses of vaccine before they are protected. It is important to keep babies away from people with coughing illnesses to reduce the risk of them becoming infected.
  • It is particularly important that children receive all 5 scheduled doses of the vaccine. They should receive these when they are:
    • 2 months
    • 4 months
    • 6 months
    • 4 years (before school entry)
    • 12 or 13 years (during Year 7 or 8).
  • Babies can be given the vaccine at 6 weeks if there is an outbreak of whooping cough.
  • A vaccine is also available for adults, though it is not always available under Medicare. Vaccination is recommended for: 
    • both parents planning a pregnancy
    • both parents of newborn babies
    • others likely to come into contact with babies, for example grandparents
    • adults who work with young children, including child care workers and health care workers.
  • Vaccination is available through:
    • GPs
    • local council immunisation clinics
    • community health immunisation centres
    • school-based vaccination programs.

Where to get help

  • See your doctor.
  • Visit a GP after hours.
  • Ring healthdirect Australia on 1800 022 222.


  • Anyone can get whooping cough.
  • Whooping cough is dangerous for babies and young children. It is important not to expose them to infection.
  • Vaccination is the best way to prevent whooping cough. Make sure children are up-to-date with their vaccines.

This publication is provided for education and information purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical care. Information about a therapy, service, product or treatment does not imply endorsement and is not intended to replace advice from your healthcare professional. Readers should note that over time currency and completeness of the information may change. All users should seek advice from a qualified healthcare professional for a diagnosis and answers to their medical questions.

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