Whooping cough affects both adults and children

Whooping cough is a serious disease and affects both children and adults. Photo: File
Whooping cough is a serious disease and affects both children and adults. Photo: File

Many people think whooping cough is a childhood disease but it can affect adults too.

It is a serious disease which can lead to hospitalisation and even death.

So what is whooping cough?

Whooping cough or pertussis is a bacterial infection caused by Bordetella pertussis. It spreads when an infected person coughs or sneezes and you breathe it in.

Symptoms usually start seven to 10 days after infection when the bacteria affect the lungs, causing a person to cough violently.

Some people develop a distinctive 'whooping' sound when they cough, but this does not happen to everyone.

Adolescents and adults often do not have a 'whoop'.

The cough can interfere with your sleep and can be so violent can cause you to vomit or in severe cases, break ribs.

The cough eventually eases resulting in a milder cough which can last for several months.

Babies might not have a bad cough, or might not cough at all. Symptoms in babies can include pauses in breathing, turning blue or having trouble feeding.

Some people may not know they have whooping cough because they do not have any symptoms or have only mild symptoms. They can still spread the disease to other people.

And who is at risk?

Whooping cough can affect people at any age, but those at high risk of catching the disease include:

  • Babies less than six months old who are not yet old enough to be fully vaccinated
  • About one in every 200 babies under 6 months old who get whooping cough dies from pneumonia or brain damage
  • People living in the same household as someone with whooping cough
  • People who have not had a whooping cough booster in the last 10 years

Vaccination at hand

Whooping cough (pertussis) can be prevented with vaccination.

The vaccine contains pertussis, diphtheria and tetanus. Information taken from The Australian Immunisation Handbook.

Pertussis-containing vaccine is recommended in a five-dose schedule at two, four, six and 18 months, and four years of age.

A booster dose of pertussis-containing vaccine is recommended for adolescents between 11-13 years, routinely administered in year 8.

Vaccination with pertussis is recommended for any adult who wants to reduce their likelihood of becoming ill with pertussis.

Adults of any age who need a tetanus-containing vaccine can have the triple antigen (pertussis, diphtheria and tetanus -dTpa) rather than just the diphtheria and tetanus vaccine (dT). This is especially important if they have not previously had a pertussis-containing vaccine in adulthood.

Adults aged 65 years are recommended to receive a pertussis-containing vaccine in adulthood if they have not had one in the past 10 years. This is because pertussis is associated with increased morbidity in older people.

dTpa vaccine is recommended as a single dose in each pregnancy.

Vaccination during pregnancy reduces the risk of pertussis in young infants by 90 per cent. This results from direct passive protection by transplacental transfer of pertussis antibodies from the mother to the fetus during pregnancy.

The optimal time for pertussis vaccination in pregnancy is between mid-2nd trimester and early 3rd trimester (between 20- and 32-weeks gestation).

If a mother was not vaccinated during pregnancy, maternal vaccination is recommended as soon as possible after birth and preferably before hospital discharge.

Vaccinating the mother after delivery reduces the likelihood of pertussis in the mother and indirectly protects the infant.

However, infant protection will be substantially less than if the mother had been vaccinated in the 3rd trimester of pregnancy.

Adult household contacts and carers of infants to six months of age are recommended to receive dTpa vaccine at least two weeks before they have close contact with the infant if their last dose was more than 10 years ago.

Breastfeeding women can receive the dTpa vaccine.

All healthcare workers are recommended to receive dTpa vaccine every 10 years because of the significant risk of transmitting pertussis to vulnerable patients.

Adults who provide early childhood education and care for infants and young children aged to four years are recommended to receive dTpa vaccine every 10 years.

Travellers are recommended to receive a booster dose of dTpa prior to travel if they have not received a pertussis-containing vaccine in the last 10 years.

It should be noted it is safe to give pertussis-containing vaccine to children, adolescents or adults who have had laboratory-confirmed pertussis infection.

These people should receive all routinely scheduled pertussis-containing vaccines because natural immunity does not provide lifelong protection. This is particularly important for infants to six months of age who develop pertussis because they may not mount an adequate immune response after infection.


Catherine Keil is a Travel Health and Immunisations nurse practitioner who consults at Angaston Medical Centre in the Barossa Valley, SA, each Tuesday and Thursday.

Email: catherine@travelhealthpractitioner.com.au

This story first appeared on the Barossa and Light Herald website.