Whooping Cough (pertussis)

Page last updated: 23 February 2016

Whooping Cough (pertussis) is an extremely contagious respiratory infection caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis. The disease causes uncontrolled coughing and vomiting, which can last for several months and can be particularly dangerous for babies under the age of 12 months.

Babies are at greatest risk of contracting whooping cough until they have had at least two doses of the vaccine (aged four months), as their mother’s antibodies do not provide reliable protection. About one in 200 infants under the age of six months who contract whooping cough will die from pneumonia or brain damage.

Increasing vaccination coverage has dramatically reduced the incidence of whooping cough among Australian children. However, it remains a highly infectious and dangerous disease. In a household where someone has whooping cough, an estimated 80-90% of the unimmunised contacts of that person will acquire the disease.


Whooping cough is spread through respiratory droplets, which can be transmitted in the air through coughing or sneezing, or from close contact with an infected person.


It takes between seven and 20 days after infection for the symptoms of whooping cough to appear. The disease begins like a cold, before the characteristic “whooping” cough develops. This cough may persist for several months, and lead to sleep disturbance and significant weight loss. Severe complications, which occur almost exclusively in unvaccinated people, include pneumonia (lung infection) and hypoxic encephalopathy (lack of oxygen to the brain).


Immunisation with a DTPa-containing (diphtheria-tetanus-acellular pertussis) vaccine is the best way to reduce the risk of whooping cough in children. It is recommended as part of routine childhood immunisation, as a combination vaccine which is free on the National Immunisation Program Schedule. Doses of vaccine are given at two, four and six months of age, with booster doses at 18 months, four years and 10-15 years. To receive a child pertussis immunisation, visit your local doctor or immunisation provider. It is important to note that although the vaccine is provided at no cost, a consultation fee may apply.

To protect young infants against pertussis before they commence their vaccinations at 2 months of age, the 2015 update of The Australian Immunisation Handbook – 10th edition recommends a single booster dose of adult formulation pertussis vaccine (dTpa) for all pregnant women in their third trimester of pregnancy as their antibodies transfer to the newborn through the placenta. A dose is also recommended for adult household contacts and carers (e.g. fathers, grandparents) of infants <6 months of age at least 2 weeks before beginning close contact with the infant to reduce the chance of passing on the bacteria.

As whooping cough causes severe disease in the elderly, adults who are 65 years of age are recommended a single booster dose of dTpa if they haven’t received one already in the previous 10 years.

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