Whooping Cough (Pertussis)

Whooping Cough (Pertussis)

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What is Whooping Cough?

Whooping cough is an infection of the nose, throat and lungs caused by the germ Bordetella pertussis.

Whooping cough spreads easily and affects people of all ages. It can be very serious in babies and can cause pneumonia (infection of the lungs), brain damage and death.

It is very important to keep people with coughing illnesses away from babies so they do not infect the baby with whooping cough or other germs.

What are the Symptoms?

Whooping cough usually starts with a runny nose, mild fever and a cough.

Coughing can get worse and cause vomiting, choking or taking a big gasping breath which causes a "whooping" sound.

Babies may get very sick.  They may go blue or stop breathing during coughing and may need to go to hospital. This is an emergency.

The cough may last for months.

How is it Spread?

Whooping cough is spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes without covering their mouth and nose. People close to them may get their germs.

The time from being in contact with the germ to when people get sick is about seven to ten days, but can be up to three weeks.

It is very easy to give others whooping cough at the start of the illness.

Without treatment, a person can give others whooping cough during the first three weeks of coughing. With the right antibiotics, this time can be cut to five days.

How is it Diagnosed?

It is important for doctors to find out if it is  whooping cough. This is done with a nose and throat swab. Sometimes a blood test is done. The doctor may start medication before test results are back.

Testing centres and doctors will tell the Department of Health and Human Services about the test results.  Clinical Nurse Consultants then work with doctors, families and contacts of people who have whooping cough.

This is to give advice on how to stop more spread of whooping cough.

How is it Treated?

In its early days, whooping cough symptoms can be made a bit better by taking antibiotics. 

Antibiotics, if given early, may also help to stop the spread of whooping cough to others.

How is it Prevented?

If someone has been immunised then whooping cough won't be as serious.

Immunisation is given by doctors and some local councils.

Who should get immunised?

Babies and young children The vaccine is given to young children from six weeks of age, then at four months, six months, 18 months and again at four years. Immunisation will give the best protection when given on time.

Pregnant women A booster dose in the third trimester is safe and gives protection by passing the protection from the mother to the baby. This will protect the baby until up to six weeks of age. 

Teenagers Protection from immunisation given to babies and children gets less over the years.  A booster dose is given to year seven students in high school.

Adults People who should think about getting a booster dose are:

  • Women who have just had a baby (if they were not given a booster in the third trimester).
  • Other people who live in the same house or who care for babies (fathers, grandparents as well as adoptive and foster parents).
  • Anyone who works often in close contact with very young babies, such as childcare workers.
  • Anyone having a tetanus booster, which can be given in the same injection with whooping cough vaccine.
  • Healthcare workers.

Whooping cough vaccines for babies, young children, year seven students and pregnant women are free.

What should I do if I have had contact with someone who has whooping cough?

Watch for symptoms of whooping cough for the next three weeks.  See your doctor if you develop symptoms. The people who should see a doctor quickly after they have been close to someone  with whooping cough, even if they feel well are:

  • Children who are less than six months of age.
  • Children who aren't fully immunised.
  • Pregnant women who are in the last month of pregnancy (or their partner).
  • People who live or work with babies.

People who have been in close contact with people with whooping cough are sometimes also given antibiotics. This helps to stop them from getting sick and from giving whooping cough to people who might get extremely sick if they catch whooping cough.

What Should I do if I have Whooping Cough?

  • If you have whooping cough and are being treated, stay away from childcare, school or work until five days after starting antibiotics.
  • If you have whooping cough and are not being treated, stay away from childcare, school or work for three weeks from the start of symptoms.
  • If you have whooping cough, stay away from young children, pregnant women, and people who have not been immunised against whooping cough. You should also try to stay away from people who live or work with babies or women in the last month of pregnancy.
  • If you have a cough which may be whooping cough, see a doctor and stay away from the above places and people until you have seen a doctor.

Call the Public Health Hotline - Tasmania on 1800 671 738 to speak to a clinical nurse consultant about whooping cough.

25 May 2015


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