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Whooping cough

Whooping cough (also called pertussis) is a fast-spreading bacterial infection of the lungs and breathing tubes.
The first signs of whooping cough are like a cold.  After about a week, you or your child:
  • will get coughing bouts that last for a few minutes and are worse at night
  • may make a “whoop” sound as you gasp for breath between coughs (young babies and some adults may not “whoop”)
  • may bring up a thick mucus, which can make you sick
  • may become very red in the face (this is more common in adults)
Whooping cough is less severe in older children and adults but coughing may cause problems including:
  • nosebleeds
  • sore ribs
  • hernia
Whooping cough can be dangerous for babies under 6 months old as they have increased chances of problems including:
  • dehydration
  • breathing difficulties
  • pneumonia
  • fits (seizures)

Contact your GP urgently or call for medical help if:

  • your baby is under 6 months old and has symptoms of whooping cough
  • you or your child have a very bad cough that is getting worse
  • you have been in contact with someone with whooping cough and you are pregnant
  • you or your child has been in contact with someone with whooping cough and have a weakened immune system
Whooping cough can spread very easily. It is best to inform the healthcare provider before you go in.

Call for an ambulance or go to A&E if:

  • your child has periods of stopping breathing and their face or lips go blue (cyanosis)
  • you or your child are finding it hard to breathe properly
  • you or your child have chest pain that is worse when breathing or coughing – this could be a sign of pneumonia
  • your child is having fits (seizures)
How long is it contagious for?
You are contagious from about 6 days after the start of cold-like symptoms to 3 weeks after the coughing starts. If you start antibiotics within 3 weeks of starting to cough, it will reduce the time you’re contagious for.
What can I do to relieve the symptoms?

To relieve symptoms:

  • get plenty of rest
  • drink lots of fluids
  • take paracetamol or ibuprofen to relieve discomfort

The whooping cough vaccine protects babies and children from getting whooping cough. The vaccine is routinely given as part of the child vaccine programme. If you are pregnant you should also have the whooping cough vaccine (ideally between 16 and 32 weeks).


Treatment depends on your age and how long you have had the infection. If your whooping cough is severe, or your baby is under 6 months old and has whooping cough, you will probably need treatment in hospital.

If diagnosed within 3 weeks of the infection, you will be given antibiotics to help prevent it spreading to others.  Note that the antibiotics may not reduce symptoms.

If you have had whooping cough for more than 3 weeks, you are no longer contagious and do not need antibiotics.

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