Whooping cough is an extremely contagious respiratory tract infection. It is also known as ‘pertussis’, and is caused by the bacterium Bordatella pertussis. It can affect all ages, but is more common and more likely to be fatal in young children. In Australia, there are epidemics of whooping cough every 3-4 years, so it is important to look out for and be aware of!
What are the symptoms of whooping cough?
Whooping cough begins like a cold. After about a week, the characteristic ‘whooping’ sounded cough develops – coughing episodes that end in a ‘whooping’ noise when the child can finally take a breath in. The coughing spells can last for up to a couple of minutes per episode, and unfortunately the symptoms can go on for months. This can cause significant distress and sleep disturbance, and may cause episodes of the child being unable to breathe. If severe, it can also cause complications such as pneumonia and brain damage.
How is whooping cough spread?
It is spread via droplets that are coughed or sneezed out during the first 3 weeks of the illness. If a child breathes in these droplets, or touches their mouth or nose after touching a surface that has the droplets on it, they can get infected. This also reminds us how important it is to wash our hands and follow hand hygiene to prevent the spread of infection.
Who is at risk of whooping cough?
Anyone who is not protected (by recent immunisation or by having had the infection in the past) can get it, including older children and adults.
Whooping cough can be especially life-threatening for babies under the age of 12 months. Newborns are not immune to it, and can get very sick. About 1 in 200 babies under the age of 6 months who get the infection die from it.
How can I help prevent my child from getting whooping cough?
Immunisation is the best way to reduce the risk of whooping cough in children. This completely protects children in most cases, although a small number of immunised children may still get it – but the illness will be a lot milder than if they were not vaccinated, which is still a much better outcome.
We are very lucky in that the pertussis vaccination is free as part of the National Immunisation Program, as a combination vaccine, and is given at 2, 4 and 6 months of age, with booster doses at 18 months, 4 years and 10-15 years.
Immunising older children also helps protect vulnerable babies who are too young to be vaccinated, because there are less children in the community that are able to spread the infection.
It is also recommended that pregnant women, and other adult contacts and carers (eg. fathers, grandparents, childcare workers) get a booster dose, even if they have been immunised before. This reduces the chance of passing the infection to the baby.
If you would like more information on the pertussis vaccination and the National Immunisation Program schedule, please visit the Immunise Australia Program website: http://www.immunise.health.gov.au.
If you are worried that your child has whooping cough, or would like to discuss immunisations, feel free to come in and see one of our friendly GPs. Please contact us on 8269 6000 to book an appointment.
Immunise Australia program 2016, ‘Whooping Cough (pertussis),’ , http://www.immunise.health.gov.au/internet/immunise/publishing.nsf/Content/immunise-pertussis
Women’s and Children’s Health Network 2016, ‘Whooping cough (pertussis),’ , http://www.cyh.com/HealthTopics/HealthTopicDetails.aspx?p=114&np=303&id=1851#2
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