Pertussis (whooping cough)

Whooping cough, as the name suggests, is known for the uncontrollable, violent coughing fits that can last for 1-2 months in affected children, and the accompanying ‘whooping’ noise as they struggle to breathe.

The disease is caused by a bacteria named Bordetella pertussis that live in the mouth, nose and throat, and is extremely contagious. The disease is spread by coughing and sneezing and is most dangerous for babies less than 1 year of age, who often don’t cough but struggle to breathe without help. Infected people can spread the disease for 3 weeks or longer after the coughing begins.

Once infected with the bacteria, it takes 7 to 10 days for symptoms to appear, and usually they are similar to a common cold – stuffy/runny nose, red watery eyes, high temperature and a cough. A week or two later your baby will develop a thick mucus in their airways (the bacteria paralyse the little hairs that help to clear mucus), which means that the coughing fits get worse and can result in vomiting, extreme tiredness, a red or blue face, and the characteristic ‘whooping’ noise as they struggle to breathe.

Whooping cough is a serious illness which quite commonly causes pneumonia, and for small babies it is particularly serious - often resulting in seizures and brain damage in those under 6 months. It can cause abdominal hernia (a weak spot in the abdominal wall through which internal organs can bulge out), and the rupture of blood vessels under the skin and in the eyes of older children.

Half of all babies with whooping cough will need to be admitted to hospital, and about 1 in 500 babies with the disease will die from it. It is recommended that all pregnant women are vaccinated in the third trimester of every pregnancy. The unborn baby will receive some protection from the mother, which will last until they are old enough to receive the vaccine. The 6-in-1 vaccine protects children from the bacteria that cause whooping cough.