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Whooping cough (pertussis) is a highly infectious disease that is spread by coughing and sneezing.

It can be very serious for babies and children, especially those under one year of age. Whooping cough is caused by bacteria that damages your breathing tubes.

The best protection against whooping cough is to be vaccinated. In New Zealand the whooping cough vaccine is given to babies for free as part of the immunisation schedule.

Pregnant women can also be vaccinated for free, as well as some other at-risk groups. You can check with your doctor or practice nurse if you are eligible or if you need to get the vaccine.

If you or your child has whooping cough symptoms get help. Contact your doctor or practice nurse, or call Healthline for free anytime on 0800 611 116.

Whooping cough is spread very easily, by coughing and sneezing.

If you or your child have whooping cough you will be infectious (which means being able to spread it to others) from the week before you start coughing, and then for a further three weeks from when the cough started.

If you take antibiotics this can reduce the amount of time you are infectious for.

Whooping cough symptoms include:

  • a runny nose
  • fever
  • a dry cough

The cough turns into long coughing attacks and these can last for several weeks.

In young children, the coughing attacks often end with a ‘whoop’ sound when the child breathes in. The child may also be sick or gag as a result of the coughing.

Whooping cough can make it difficult for babies to breathe, which is why it can be so dangerous.

If someone in your family has had a cough that ends with a whoop or vomiting, or that has lasted for two weeks or more, contact your doctor or nurse for advice. You can also call Healthline for free anytime on 0800 611 116.

If you or your child has difficulty breathing you should get emergency medical help. Call 111.

Babies younger than one year old may need hospital treatment for whooping cough. For most other people whooping cough can be treated at home with antibiotics prescribed by your doctor.

The antibiotics do not cure you, but they do stop you passing on the disease to others. You’re no longer infectious and at risk of making others ill after five days of taking antibiotics (or after two days if you take the antibiotic azithromycin). 

If you do not take antibiotics you will still be infectious until three weeks after your intense bouts of coughing started.

More information on caring for whooping cough at home is available from Health Navigator.

Whooping cough spreads very easily so people with the disease are required to stay home to reduce the risk of passing it on to others. If you or your child have whooping cough you should stay home until:

  • two days (48 hours) after you started treatment if you are taking Azithromycin as an antibiotic; or
  • five days after you started treatment if you are taking Erythromycin as an antibiotic; or
  • three weeks since your cough started if you are not taking an antibiotic treatment.

 

Staying home

Staying home means you need to stay away from other people while you are infectious. You should avoid places such as day care, school, work or anywhere you could risk passing on the disease to others.

If you have whooping cough you can reduce the risk of passing on the disease while you are infectious by:

  • staying away from others, including people you live with where possible
  • wearing a face mask when around other people or indoors
  • coughing into your elbow and sneezing into a tissue
  • regularly washing your hands

If there are people in your whānau at higher risk of becoming very unwell if they catch whooping cough, then everyone you live may be provided with antibiotics.

Vaccination is the best way to protect against whooping cough. The vaccine is available for free for:

  • Children and young people aged under 18
  • Pregnant women
  • Some groups at higher risk of becoming very unwell if they catch whooping cough

The whooping cough vaccine is on the Immunisation Schedule, which means babies are given it as part of the routine immunisations they receive. It’s recommended babies are given the whooping cough vaccine at six weeks, three months and five months old. Boosters are also given at four and 11 years old.

If you or your child have missed out on getting the whooping cough vaccine you should speak to your healthcare provider about catching up.

Young children – especially babies under a year old – can become very ill and even die from whooping cough.

If babies catch whooping cough, they:

  • may not be able to feed or breathe properly
  • may become so ill they need to go to hospital
  • could end up with pneumonia (an infection in the lungs) or rarely, brain damage

 

Immunisation

Most babies and young children with whooping cough catch it from a parent, caregiver or older child, before they are old enough to be immunised against it. Immunising adults and older children reduces the chance of them getting whooping cough themselves and passing it on to babies and young children. Immunisation is recommended for:

  • Older children and adults in families with young babies or that are expecting a baby
  • Adults who care for babies or young children e.g. nurses, midwives, early childhood workers, and other carers for the child, such as grandparents or aunties and uncles

You should discuss immunisation with your doctor if you are a parent, are expecting a baby, or care for babies.

 

Other ways to protect babies and young children

You can also reduce the risk of your baby catching whooping cough by:

  • Keeping your baby away from people with a runny nose, coughing, or sneezing
  • Asking people who are ill not to visit if you have young children
  • Encouraging others in your whānau to get vaccinated
  • Encouraging people who come into contact with your baby to cough into their elbow and sneeze into a tissue; and regularly wash their hands and practice good hygiene

Whooping cough in newborn babies can be life-threatening, but it can also be prevented.

Pregnant women can be vaccinated between weeks 28 and 38 weeks of pregnancy to protect themselves and their child against whooping cough.

This vaccine helps the mother build up their immune system against whooping cough, and this protection is also passed on to the child while they are in the womb. New-born babies should still receive the vaccine at six weeks, three months, and five months old as well.

If you’re pregnant or planning a child talk to your midwife about immunisation against whooping cough.

Whooping cough is a notifiable disease. This means that health professionals or laboratories will inform us when someone has it. This allows us to monitor the number of people who have whooping cough and provide advice on how to reduce its spread. Our team will also provide advice to the person who has the disease, and others they’ve been in close contact with, to reduce the risk of more people catching it.

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Last updated 21.9.2022

For health advice call Healthline for free anytime on 0800 611 116
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