Pertussis (Whooping Cough) Fact Sheet
What is pertussis?
What are the symptoms?
How is it spread?
Who is at risk?
How is it prevented?
Keep babies away from people who cough
Get immunised if you are an adult in contact with small children
If you have pertussis, what do you do?
How is pertussis diagnosed?
How is it treated?
What is the public health response?
Pertussis (or whooping cough) affects people of all ages, but it is most serious in infants, especially those under 6 months of age who are too young to be fully vaccinated. Immunisation is an effective way to protect people against pertussis, and it is particularly important that children receive all 5 scheduled doses of pertussis vaccine (at 2, 4 and 6 months of age, with booster doses at 4 years of age, and again in the year 8 school based program). In addition, it is recommended that adults who live or work with young children should have pertussis vaccine.
Pertussis is a disease caused by infection of the respiratory tract with the bacterium Bordetella pertussis.
What are the symptoms?
- Pertussis usually begins just like a cold, with a runny nose, tiredness and sometimes a mild fever.
- Coughing then develops, which may occur in bouts, sometimes followed by a deep gasp (or “whoop”), especially in unvaccinated children. People may vomit after a bout of coughing.
- Pertussis can be very serious in young children, especially those under 6 months of age. Complications can include pneumonia, brain damage from lack of oxygen suffered during bouts of coughing, and death.
- Older children and adults tend to have a less serious illness, but they can still have persistent coughing that may continue for several weeks, regardless of treatment.
Pertussis is spread to other people by droplets from coughing or sneezing. Untreated, a person with pertussis can spread it to other people for up to three weeks after onset of cough.
The time between exposure and getting sick is usually seven to ten days, but can be up to three weeks.
Who is at risk?
- Anyone can get pertussis.
- People living in the same household as someone with pertussis are most likely to become infected.
- Immunisation greatly reduces the risk of infection, but protection wanes over time, and infection may still occur.
- Make sure children are up-to-date with their pertussis vaccines .
- Children need to be immunised at 2, 4 and 6 months of age, but can start as early as six weeks during an outbreak of pertussis.
- Booster doses of pertussis vaccine are recommended at 3 ½ to 4 years of age prior to school entry, and at 12 – 13 years (in the year 8 school-based program).
- Vaccination is also recommended for adults planning a pregnancy; parents of infants and other household carers, including grand-parents; and for adults who work with young children, including child-care workers and health-care workers, however it is not funded.
- Immunisation is available through general practitioners, some local council immunisation clinics, community health immunisation centres and through the school-based vaccination program.
Babies need two or three doses of vaccine before they are protected. For this reason, it is very important to keep babies away from people with coughing illnesses to reduce the risk of them being infected.
A vaccine for adults is available. It is recommended but not funded for:
- Both parents when planning a pregnancy, or as soon as possible after the baby is born.
- Grandparents and others who will have close contact with the baby.
- Adults working with young children, especially health-care and child-care workers.
- People diagnosed with pertussis should stay away from school and work while infectious (up to 21 days) or until they have completed 5 days of a course of a recommended antibiotic. It is particularly important not to expose young children (e.g. at child care centres) to infection.
- If a doctor thinks you have pertussis, a swab from the back of the nose or throat, and/or a blood specimen may be collected to help confirm the diagnosis.
A recommended antibiotic – generally azithromycin for 5 days, or erythromycin or clarithromycin for 7 days - is used to treat pertussis. These antibiotics can prevent the spread of the infection to other people.
People often continue coughing for many weeks irrespective of treatment, but they are no longer infectious after completing a five day course of antibiotics, or after 21 days if untreated.
Doctors and laboratories must confidentially notify cases of pertussis to the local Public Health Unit. Public Health Unit staff may then provide advice on the best way to prevent further spread of infection. This may include exclusion from child-care of well children who have not completed their course of pertussis vaccination or a recommended preventive antibiotic.
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National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC). The Australian Immunisation Handbook, 9th Edition. Australian Government, 2008.