Pertussis (whooping cough)

Pertussis, commonly known as whooping cough, is a contagious bacterial infection that causes severe bouts of coughing. While most common in infants who have not been vaccinated against it, because of waning immunity, pertussis can also occur in adults. Adults can pass the infection on to young children, and for adults living with lung disease, particularly COPD, pertussis can be serious.

What is pertussis?

Pertussis (commonly known as whooping cough because of the ‘whoop’ sound that can occur during bouts of coughing) is caused by the bacteria Bordetella pertussis. It is passed person to person through respiratory droplets (such as someone coughing or sneezing near you).

What are the symptoms?

Pertussis usually begins with cold-like symptoms such as a runny nose, sneezing, mild dry cough, and fever. After these mild symptoms appear, the cough worsens. The cough comes in long, uncontrollable bursts that can be severe.

Who is at risk?

Anyone of any age can catch pertussis. Some groups have a higher risk. These include:

  • People who have not been vaccinated against pertussis
  • People who have not received a pertussis-containing booster vaccine in the past 10 years
  • Babies under 6 months old because they are not fully vaccinated yet — this risk period is longer if the six-month vaccines are not given on time
  • People living in the same house as someone with pertussis.

Emerging evidence shows that people living with COPD are more likely to be diagnosed with pertussis than the general population. Having pertussis is also shown to increase the risk of COPD exacerbations.

How can I protect myself and others?

Vaccination is the best protection against pertussis as it prevents most cases of serious illness and the spread to people who are vulnerable or not vaccinated. Pertussis vaccination is part of free routine childhood immunisation. It is also free for pregnant women for every pregnancy. The pertussis vaccination in pregnancy is safe and protects the baby after birth when they are too young to be vaccinated.

A booster vaccination is recommended for breastfeeding women (who didn’t receive the booster in pregnancy). It is also recommended for adults aged 65 years and over who haven’t had a booster in the last 10 years, and adults under 65 who haven’t had a recent booster and have contact with very young children (such as healthcare workers, childcare workers, parents/guardians and grandparents). Immunity to pertussis wanes over time and you can develop the illness again even if you have had it before.

A pertussis booster can be obtained from general practice, community pharmacies and some community clinics. Search ‘Vaccination Clinic’ by your postcode here to find your closest vaccine service provider.

How is it diagnosed?

Your doctor will ask you about your symptoms and if you have been in contact with someone who has pertussis. They will listen to your breathing. If the doctor thinks you may have pertussis, they will refer you to have some tests. The tests include a nose or throat swab or a blood test.

How is it treated?

Antibiotics are used to treat pertussis. While it is not usual for antibiotics to speed up your recovery, they will reduce your risk of spreading pertussis to others. You are no longer contagious five days after starting antibiotics or three weeks after the cough starts.

Symptoms can be relieved by plenty of rest, drinking water or other fluids, and avoiding cigarette smoke.