What is pertussis?

Pertussis is a disease caused by infection of the throat with the bacteria Bordetella Pertussis.

What are the symptoms?

  • Usually begins just like a cold, with a runny nose, tiredness and sometimes a mild fever
  • Coughing then develops, usually in bouts, followed by a deep gasp or ‘whoop’ in infants.  Sometimes people vomit after coughing. The cough can last for many weeks and can be worse at night.
  • Pertussis can be very serious in small children.  They might go blue or stop breathing during coughing attacks and may need to go to hospital.
  • Older children and adults may have a less serious illness, with bouts of coughing that continue for many weeks regardless of treatment.

 How is it spread?

Whooping cough spreads by airborne droplets, that is, an infectious person coughs bacteria into the air which can then be inhaled by other people in close proximity. Once a person is infected with whooping cough and starts experiencing symptoms they can be infectious to others unless they are treated early. Without treatment people with whooping cough are infectious during the first 3 weeks of their illness and can infect others in their household, workplace, child care centre and school.

Who is at risk?

Anyone can get pertussis. People living in the same household as someone with pertussis are more likely to catch it. Immunisation greatly reduces the risk of infection, but reinfection can occur.

How is it prevented?

Vaccination is the most important way of reducing pertussis in our community.

If you are a close contact of someone with pertussis:

Watch out for the symptoms. If symptoms develop, see your doctor, take this Fact Sheet with you and mention your contact with pertussis. Some close contacts at high risk (e.g., children under one year, children not fully vaccinated, and women at the end of their pregnancy) and others who live or work with high-risk people may need to take antibiotics to prevent infection.

How is it diagnosed?

Your doctor may ask about your symptoms and whether you’ve had any contact with someone infected with whooping cough. If your doctor thinks you have whooping cough, they will take a swab from the back of your nose and send it to the laboratory to confirm the diagnosis.

If you have pertussis:

  • Get treated early.
  • While infectious, avoid other people and stay away from young children, e.g. at child care centres, school etc.

How is it treated?

A special antibiotic – usually azithromycin for 5 days, or erythromycin or clarithromycin for 7 days, is used to treat pertussis. These antibiotics can prevent the spread of the germ to other people. Coughing often continues for many weeks despite treatment.

If you have any concerns about your child’s health please consult your own doctor.