Whooping Cough (Pertussis): Diseases Vaccines Prevent

This page provides a brief summary of the disease and the vaccine that is available to prevent it. Links to more detailed information are provided at the bottom of the page.

What is whooping cough?

Whooping cough is also known as pertussis. The disease causes long bouts of coughing and choking in children making it hard to breathe. A child may turn blue from lack of air, or vomit after a coughing spell. Between these coughing spells a child gasps for air causing the characteristic ‘whoop’ sound. Not all children get the ‘whoop’. A child with whooping cough can have difficulty eating, drinking or even breathing. The disease can last up to three months. Whooping cough is most serious in babies under 12 months of age, often requiring admission to hospital and may be fatal.

How do people get whooping cough?

Whooping cough is a very contagious disease; it is very easily spread from person to person. It is caused by bacteria called Bordetella Pertussis that live in the mouth, nose and throat. Whooping cough is spread by personal contact, coughing and sneezing. Infection is often transmitted to young children in the home from older siblings or adults who may be harbouring the bacteria in their nose and throat.

Whooping cough can occur at any age. Although most reported cases occur in children less than five years, cases are reported amongst adolescents and adults every year. In 2016, 142 cases of whooping cough were reported in the first 8 months of the year and one infant died from whooping cough infection.  In 2019 165 cases were reported however during the Covid -19 pandemic in 2021 there were only 3 confirmed cases of whooping cough.

Many reported cases occur among infants, some of whom are too young to have received the three primary doses of vaccine necessary to provide protection. Since 2013 pertussis vaccine has been recommended for during each pregnancy to provide protection to infants in the first few months of life.

What are the symptoms of whooping cough?

Different parts of the body may be affected including the lungs and brain. 

Respiratory (Breathing)

Most cases of whooping cough involve some degree of collapsed lung and/or pneumonia. Babies may stop breathing. Pneumonia may be severe enough to lead to death. Approximately half the deaths from whooping cough are due to pneumonia. Those who survive usually do not experience permanent lung damage.

Central nervous system (Brain)

There may be altered consciousness or convulsions. This is most likely due to a lack of oxygen or small amounts of bleeding into the brain. Death, permanent brain damage or full recovery are equally likely to result from this form of the disease. Around half of babies under 6 months who have whooping cough may be admitted to hospital. Up to 1 in 70 babies can suffer convulsions. Around 1 in 1000 may develop encephalopathy (inflammation of the brain).

Nutritional (Feeding)

Frequent vomiting and loss of appetite may result in severe weight loss.

Whooping cough is a serious illness and may result in death. More than half of the babies under one year with whooping cough are hospitalised.

Of the people who get whooping cough

  • 1 in 500 dies from pneumonia or brain damage. (90% of deaths are in children under the age of 6 months)
  • 1 in 100 will have fits (1 in 70 if less than 6 months)
  • 1 in 1000 will get encephalitis (inflammation of the brain) (1 in 500 if less than 6 months old)
  • 1 in 20 will get pneumonia (1 in 10 if less than 6 months)
  • 1 in 5 will need to go to hospital (1 in 2 if less than 6 months)

Serious illness is less common in older children.

Who should get pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine?

Pertussis (whooping cough) can be prevented by vaccination.

Pertussis vaccine is given to children as part of the 6 in 1 vaccine at 2, 4 and 6 months of age.

The 6 in 1 vaccine protects against Diphtheria, Hepatitis B, Hib (Haemophilus Influenzae b), Pertussis (Whooping Cough), Polio and Tetanus.

A booster vaccine dose is given at 4-5 years of age (4 in 1 vaccine) which protects against Diphtheria, Pertussis (Whooping Cough), Polio and Tetanus.

Another booster dose is given in 1st year of second level school (Tdap vaccine) which protects against Diphtheria, Pertussis (Whooping Cough) and Tetanus.

Pertussis (Tdap vaccine) vaccine is also recommended for pregnant women after 16 weeks and up to 36 weeks gestation in each pregnancy, to protect themselves and their infant in the first few months of life. If your child requires vaccination, or you are unsure of your child’s vaccination status, contact your GP for advice.

Who should not get pertussis vaccine?

There are very few people who should not get pertussis vaccine. Your child should not get the vaccine if they have had a severe allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) to a previous dose of the vaccine or any part of the vaccine.

What to expect after pertussis (whooping cough) vaccine?

After getting the vaccine, your child may have discomfort, redness or swelling around the area where the injection was given. They may be irritable and have a fever.

If this happens you can give them paracetamol or ibuprofen. You should also give them plenty to drink. Make sure they are not too warm and that their clothes are not rubbing against the injection area.

Children usually recover from these minor side effects within a day or two

Of those who are immunised;

  • 1 in 10 have discomfort, redness and swelling where the injection was given or will have a fever.
  • About 1 in 2500 may cry for more than three hours after immunisations.

More serious side effects, such as fitting may occur in 1 in 10,000 children vaccinated. Most of these events have no long-term consequences.

How does pertussis vaccine work?

Pertussis vaccine contains extracts from the Bordetella Pertussis bacteria. The vaccine works by making the body's immune system respond to the bacteria, without causing disease.

How effective is the pertussis vaccine?

Between 80% to 85% of children become immune to Bordetella Pertussis when they have completed the recommended vaccine schedule.

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Where can I find out more?

If you have any questions speak with your GP or public health nurse or local health office

This page was updated on 22 March 2023