Pertussis (Whooping Cough)

Pertussis (whooping cough) is a serious, sometimes fatal, respiratory infection caused by the bacterium, Bordetella pertussis. The disease is most serious in infancy. Pertussis is responsible for an estimated 250,000 deaths in children annually. Pertussis is a highly infectious disease transferred rapidly to susceptible household contacts. Infection is spread by direct contact with droplets from the nose and throat of an infected person. The incubation period is commonly seven to ten days.


In most cases the disease begins with cold-like symptoms which progress to a paroxysmal cough with “whoop” on breathing-in. In adults, a persistent cough is the main symptom. Babies under 12 months of age are more severely affected and often require admission to hospital. Complications of pertussis include convulsions, pneumonia, coma, inflammation of the brain, and brain damage. Around one in every 200 children less than six months of age who contracts pertussis will die. The most common cause of death is from pertussis pneumonia.


The incidence and severity of pertussis is reduced by immunisation. The pertussis vaccine is usually given as a trivalent vaccine (triple antigen) in which pertussis is combined with diphtheria and tetanus vaccines. The primary course of vaccination consists of three doses in infancy. Booster doses are recommended later in childhood and in secondary school.

Boosting adults is now strongly recommended. The vaccine is also now recommended for pregnant women in the third trimester of pregnancy to provide some protection for babies at birth. Those who will be caring for, or in close contact with babies, are encouraged to be vaccinated also.


Antibiotics can stop people from being contagious to others but usually do not stop the cough which may persist for months. (In Chinese, pertussis is described as the “100-days cough”)