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

It's caused by bacteria, which damage the breathing tubes, and can be very serious for babies and children, especially those under one year of age. The best protection against whooping cough is immunisation.

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 brain damage.

Most young children with whooping cough catch it from a parent, caregiver or older child, before they are old enough to be immunised against it.

Your family/whānau’s best protection against whooping cough is to be immunised against it. If you think you or your child may not have had this vaccination, see your doctor.

If you are concerned about whooping cough call Healthline on 0800 611 116 or see your doctor or practice nurse.

Pregnant women

Whooping cough in newborn babies can be life-threatening. It can be prevented if a pregnant woman is immunised between 28 and 38 weeks of pregnancy. The immunisation stimulates the mother’s immune system to make antibodies and these are also passed to the infant via the placenta. This helps protect both the mother from getting sick with pertussis and the new baby. Talk to your midwife about immunisation against whooping cough.

Whooping cough is spread very easily, by coughing and sneezing. If you or your child have whooping cough you will be infectious (able to pass it to others) from the week before you start coughing until three weeks after the cough starts, unless you take antibiotics.

Whooping cough starts with a runny nose, fever and a dry cough. This cough turns into long coughing attacks.

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. Babies can even stop breathing.

If you are concerned about whooping cough call Healthline on 0800 611 116 or see your doctor or practice nurse.

Whooping cough is normally treated with antibiotics at home. The antibiotics may not cure you, but after five days of taking them or after two days if the antibiotic is azithromycin, you will no longer be infectious, thus preventing the spread of the illness to others. Without antibiotics, you will still be infectious until three weeks after your intense bouts of coughing started.

Babies younger than one year with whooping cough may need hospital treatment.

Because whooping cough is so easily spread, try to keep away from other people when you or your child are infectious. This means not going to day care, school, work or anywhere there are others who could catch the disease.

Children and adults diagnosed with whooping cough will be required to stay home until one  of the following has occurred, either:

  • 2 days (48 hours) since treatment started if Azithromycin used as an antibiotic; or
  • 5 days since treatment started if Erythromycin used; or
  • 3 weeks from the start of cough if no antibiotic treatment is given to prevent them spreading the infection to others.

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 speak to the person who has the disease about their close contacts so we can provide those people with advice.

Whooping cough - a baby in Starship's Intensive Care
Vaccines: Riley Case Study


There are specific requirements for notifiable diseases in the Auckland region.

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Last updated 4.11.2020

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