Whooping cough, or pertussis, is an acute bacterial infection. Babies and young children with whooping cough often suffer prolonged illness and severe coughing fits that affect breathing, eating, drinking and sleeping. Coughing typically ends with a hurried deep intake of breath making a high pitch sound or whoop.
The infection can also cause middle ear problems, bronchitis, pneumonia, convulsions (fits), brain damage and in some cases death. Babies under 6 months are most at risk of serious problems, and about 1 in 200 affected babies in this age group dies.
Adults a source of infection
Whooping cough in adults and teenagers is usually less serious, often producing only a mild illness. However, in some adults the infection can cause a persistent cough, often lasting months, and results in significant disruption of social and working life. Over half the reported cases of whooping cough occur in teenagers and adults.
The main danger of adult infection is the risk it poses to young babies. Whooping cough is highly infectious and easily spread by coughing, sneezing and close contact. Up to 1 in 4 babies with whooping cough are infected by adults.
Breaking the whooping cough cycle
Infant immunisation against whooping cough is the most effective way to prevent serious complications. Pertussis vaccine is given as a combined diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis (DTPa) vaccine, at 2, 4 and 6 months of age.
Neither an attack of whooping cough nor immunisation produces lifelong immunity against whooping cough and so in the absence of vaccine boosting, repeated infections occur throughout life. It is expected that an immune adult or sibling would reduce the risk of spreading whooping cough to young babies not yet adequately protected by their own immunisation.
Ask your doctor about new advances in breaking the whooping cough cycle.
Please note this information was correct at time of printing.
For up to date information, speak to your doctor.