Whooping cough – what parents need to know

Signs, symptoms and treatment of whooping cough in babies, young infants and adults


What is whooping cough?

Whooping cough, or pertussis, is a very contagious bacterial infection that affects the lungs and airways.


What are the symptoms?

Symptoms tend to start mildly and then increase. Normally whooping cough starts like a normal cold, with coughing, a runny nose, sore throat and a general feeling of being unwell.

The second stage, known as paroxysmal symptoms, is when you’ll hear/ have a persistent dry and irritating cough, often coming on as bouts of coughing. An identifiable ‘whooping’ noise will often be heard after coughing. This is often worse in younger children rather than adults. Other symptoms can include a runny nose, higher temperature and vomiting.

In some younger children the whooping sound won’t be heard. Infants and young children may become blue in the face after bouts of coughing. This often looks worse than it is and normal breathing will resume quickly.

You should always seek medical advice if you think your child has whooping cough. If you cannot contact your GP, call NHS Direct on 0845 46 47.

How is it spread?

The bacterium, Bordetella pertussis, is passed from person to person through droplets in the air, coughing and sneezing.

How long does it last?

Whooping cough can last for up to three months. This is why it’s often called the ‘hundred day cough’.

How is whooping cough treated?

If diagnosed in the first three weeks: your GP may prescribe a course of antibiotics. The antibiotics should help stop the spread of the disease, but it’s important to take steps to stop the spreading of the disease, especially to babies. The NHS advises a further 5 days absence for children from nursery and adults from work, after the course of antibiotics have been completed.

If diagnosed after three weeks: antibiotics are unlikely to be given as the bacterium that causes whooping cough will have gone. You will no longer be infectious and antibiotics won’t make a difference. You will be advised to rest and drink plenty of fluids.

For babies under 6 months it is likely they will be admitted to hospital as there are risks of further complications, such as breathing difficulties. They will need to be kept in isolation and will be given antibiotics intravenously (through a drip).


If you are pregnant, you will be offered a vaccination at 28-38 weeks. This can help protect your baby from developing whooping cough in her first few weeks of life.

Children are currently vaccinated at 2, 3, and 4 months of age and then at 3 years. The is part of the standard vaccination process.

While there have been increased cases of children dying of whooping cough, this isn’t because the vaccination doesn’t work. The more people vaccinated against whooping cough the less chance there is of it being passed to a young infant.

The effectiveness of a whooping cough jab may fade over time meaning older people may inadvertently pass it on. If you’re concerned, think you haven’t been vaccinated, or would like to be, speak to your GP about your options.


Information from the NHS and Department of Health

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