Whooping Cough (Pertussis)

 Information from CDC
Whooping cough (Pertussis)

A bacterial infection of the nose and throat caused by Bordetella pertussis.

Pertussis is a highly contagious bacterial infection that causes coughing and gagging with little or no fever. An infected person has cough episodes that may end in vomiting or cause a "whoop" sound when the person tries to breathe in.

  • Symptoms appear between 6 to 21 days (average 7-10) after exposure to the bacteria.
  • The disease starts with cold symptoms: runny nose and cough. Sometime in the first 2 weeks, episodes of severe cough develop and that can last 1 to 2 months. The person may look and feel fairly healthy between these episodes.
  • During bouts of cough, the lips and nails may turn blue for lack of air. Vomiting may occur after severe coughing spells.
  • During the severe coughing stage, seizures or even death can occur, particularly in an infant. Infants less than 3 months of age may not cough; they may simply stop breathing.
  • Immunized school children and adults have milder symptoms than young children.

 Adults and older children may not develop a typical whoop or vomit after coughing. Whooping cough is particularly serious in children under two years of age and hospitalisation is usually necessary.

Potential Complications

  • Pertussis is most dangerous to children less than 1 year old. Complications for infants include pneumonia, convulsions, and in rare cases brain damage or death.
  • Serious complications are less likely in older children and adults.
Diagnosis is made by clinical examination, a blood test and sampling mucus from the nose and throat.

Whooping cough is spread by direct mucous membrane (lining of nose and throat) contact with infected droplets from the nose and throat produced by coughing and sneezing.

Incubation period

Commonly 7-10 days and rarely more than 14 days.

Infectious period

Highly infectious when the ‘cold-like’ symptoms occur in the early stages. Without treatment, a person is infectious for the first three weeks of coughing. With appropriate antibiotic therapy, the person is no longer infectious to others five days after starting antibiotics.

Control of spread

  • Timely immunisation of babies and children under 8 years of age with 5 doses of the combined pertussis, diphtheria and tetanus vaccine provides the best protection against whooping cough. However, the protection provided by the vaccine decreases with age and previously immunised older children and adults are at risk of infection.
  • Treatment of the person with whooping cough and their household contacts will reduce the spread of the infection. It is important that anyone with suspicious symptoms see their doctor so that an accurate diagnosis can be made and treatment commenced, if necessary.
  • A person with whooping cough should be excluded from child care, preschool, school or work until 5 days after starting antibiotic treatment or if not treated, for 3 weeks from the start of symptoms.
  • Unimmunised contacts aged under 7 years should be excluded from child care, preschool and school for 14 days after the last exposure to infection or until they have been on antibiotic treatment for at least 5 days.
  • Any child care, preschool, school or work contacts of a person with whooping cough should seek medical advice if they develop any symptoms.

In the case of a whooping cough epidemic the guidelines for control of spread will change. The Department of Health Human Services should be contacted for recommendations.


  • The vaccination against pertussis is included in the DTP and DTaP vaccines. Before age 7, children should get 5 doses of the DTP or DTaP vaccine. These are usually given at 2, 4, 6, and 15-18 months* of age and 4 - 6 years of age. *This 4th dose may be given as early as 12 months of age.
  • Appropriate antibiotic therapy, given in the early stages of infection, may prevent or lessen the severity of symptoms.
  • If you live with someone who has pertussis or are in the same child care classroom with someone who has had pertussis, you should take preventive antibiotics.
Bacterial Diseases
Protein Toxins
Anthrax (General Information),  (Technical Information)
Botulism and Tetanus
E. coli
Helicobacterium pylori
Lyme Disease
Whooping Cough


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Disclaimer: This information is intended as a guide only.   This information is offered to you with the understanding that it not be interpreted as medical or professional advice.  All medical information needs to be carefully reviewed with your health care provider.