Whooping cough

Your health expert: Dr Melanie Hill, Lead Physician, Bupa
Content editor review by Rachael Mayfield-Blake, March 2023
Next review due March 2026

Whooping cough (pertussis) is a bacterial infection that causes severe bouts of coughing, which can last for several weeks or months. The infection is highly contagious – it is easily spread between people. You can reduce your chance of catching it by getting vaccinated against whooping cough.

About whooping cough

Whooping cough gets its name from the fact that some people, particularly children, make a ‘whoop’ sound as they draw in breath between coughing.

You can get whooping cough at any age, but young babies and children are more likely to get it. Whooping cough used to be very common in the UK. But since vaccinations against the disease were introduced in the 1950s, the number of people getting it each year has been much lower.

Although it’s less common than it used to be, there tends to be an outbreak of whooping cough every so often, when more people than usual are infected. The highest peak of cases in recent years was in 2012.

Causes of whooping cough

The bacterium that causes whooping cough is called Bordetella pertussis, and it affects your upper airways. It’s spread through droplets in the air when an infected person coughs.

You can catch whooping cough even if you’ve had it before or had a vaccine against it. This is because the immunity you get from previous infection and vaccination wears off over time. If you do catch it for a second time, your symptoms are usually less severe. There’s more information about vaccinations in our section about the prevention of whooping cough.

Symptoms of whooping cough

Whooping cough symptoms usually begin about a week after you’re infected. The first symptoms are similar to a cold.

You may:

  • feel generally unwell
  • have a runny nose
  • sneeze
  • have a sore throat
  • have a slight fever
  • have a dry cough

These symptoms usually last for about a week or two. Because the symptoms are similar to a cold, whooping cough isn’t usually diagnosed at this stage unless you know you’ve been in contact with someone who has it.

After about a week, your cough will get worse and you’ll probably have regular bouts of severe coughing. In between coughing fits, you might feel quite well. You may have some of the following symptoms too.

  • At the end of a bout of coughing, you may make a ‘whoop’ sound as you draw in breath (the whooping cough sound). Many adults and babies don’t have this symptom – it tends to be more common in young children.
  • Coughing may be worse at night or a particular thing might set it off. For example, cold temperatures or being suddenly startled by something such as an unexpected noise.
  • You might cough up thick mucus.
  • After a bad fit of coughing, you might be sick.
  • Coughing may cause your face to flush and you might start sweating.
  • Children might have a bluish-purplish tinge to their lips and skin, caused by lack of oxygen during a coughing fit.
  • The cough tends to last for one to six weeks. But it may carry on for up to three months if you haven’t had whooping cough before and aren’t vaccinated. You should start to gradually feel better during this time, with the coughing becoming less frequent and less severe.

If you have symptoms of whooping cough, contact a GP as soon as possible. Whooping cough is a notifiable disease, which means a GP has to tell the health protection team in the local health authority. This is so they can let other people know if they’ve come into contact with the infection.

Diagnosis of whooping cough

A GP will ask about your symptoms and examine you. Tell them if you’ve had the whooping cough vaccine, and if you’ve recently been in contact with anyone who has the infection. The GP may diagnose you from your symptoms. Or they may want to do some tests, which may include the following.

  • A sample test of fluid from the mouth (in children aged 5–16). You can get kits to do this test yourself at home, and a GP may arrange for one to be sent to you.
  • A blood test (if you’re over 17 or for children under five, and have had a cough for over two weeks).
  • A sample test of fluid from the back of the throat (the swab will be taken through the nose) if you’ve had the cough for less than two weeks.

It can take a while to get the results back from tests. So, if the GP suspects you have whooping cough, they’ll probably recommend you start treatment straightaway. Sometimes, the tests can give a negative result, even if you do have whooping cough. This is because the cough can remain after the bacteria that cause it have cleared from your body.

Under 18 GP Appointments

We now offer GP appointments for children aged between 1 and 18 via our remote video service (UK wide) and face to face appointments at selected centres. Please note that these appointments cannot be booked online so please call 0330 822 3072 for more information or to book. Lines are open Monday to Friday 8am to 8pm, Saturday and Sunday 9am to 5pm. We may record and monitor our calls. Available from £49.

To book or to make an enquiry, call us on 0343 253 8381

Treatment of whooping cough


If you’ve had your cough for less than three weeks, a GP may prescribe a course of antibiotics for you. Antibiotics won’t usually help with your symptoms – you’re still likely to have a cough for several weeks. But they may help to prevent the infection spreading to other people. Even if the infection isn’t confirmed yet, you’ll need to keep children out of school or nursery until they’ve completed at least 48 hours of treatment with antibiotics. Adults should stay away from work, particularly if you work in healthcare.

Treating the symptoms

There isn’t any treatment to stop your cough but it will gradually get better on its own. While you’re feeling unwell, the best thing you can do is rest and make sure you drink enough fluids to keep hydrated. You can take over-the-counter painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen, to help with a fever and sore throat. Contact a GP if your symptoms get worse or if you think you’ve developed a complication (for more information, see our section on complications).

Treatment for severe symptoms

Some people with whooping cough may need to go into hospital for treatment. You may need to do this if you’re having difficulty breathing due to the cough or if you develop a complication such as pneumonia. Babies under six months with whooping cough may need to be treated in hospital if they become unwell. If your baby or young child develops blueish lips or nails or appears to be struggling to breathe, phone for an ambulance and tell them it’s whooping cough.

Complications of whooping cough

There are several possible complications of whooping cough, some of which can be serious and life-threatening. Most people aren’t affected, but babies under six months are at the greatest risk. Complications of whooping cough can include:

  • infection in the middle ear – caused by the spread of bacterium that caused whooping cough
  • infection of your lung (pneumonia) – also caused by spread of the bacterium
  • temporary pauses in your breathing (apnoea)
  • fits (seizures)
  • inflammation of your brain (encephalitis) – this is rare
  • severe dehydration, if you’re being sick after coughing fits

You may develop other complications directly related to the strain of constant, severe coughing, which include:

  • bursting the tiny blood vessels in your eye, which causes red eyes
  • red spots under the skin of your face and chest, caused by small blood vessels bursting during coughing
  • urinary incontinence (passing urine unintentionally)
  • trapped air in the space between your lungs and the wall of your chest (a pneumothorax)
  • a hernia – this is when the contents from your tummy (abdomen), such as your bowels, push through a weakness in the muscle of your tummy wall
  • a rectal prolapse – when part of your rectum or the lining of your rectum drops through your back passage (anus)
  • fracturing a rib

If your baby has whooping cough, your GP will examine them to check for complications and explain to you what signs to look out for. If you’re at all worried that your baby is becoming more unwell, seek medical attention straightaway.

Prevention of whooping cough

Whooping cough is highly contagious, it spreads very easily from person to person. You can reduce your chance of catching whooping cough by having a vaccine against it.


The whooping cough vaccine is offered to all babies in the UK as part of the routine vaccination schedule.

The whooping cough vaccine is given as three separate doses when your baby is 8, 12 and 16 weeks old. The vaccination also protects against:

  • diphtheria
  • tetanus
  • polio
  • Hib (Haemophilus influenzae type b)
  • hepatitis B

This combination of vaccines is called DTaP/IPV/Hib/HepB. Your child will be offered a further dose (pre-school booster) of the whooping cough vaccine, when they’re around three years and four months old.

The vaccine is very effective at protecting against whooping cough when you first have it, but this protection gradually wears off as you get older. So, you may still get the disease, especially as an adult, although it’s likely to be milder.

Children over 10 years old and adults aren’t normally offered the whooping cough vaccine, although you may be if you’ve been in close contact with an infected person. If your child missed out on the vaccine when they were young, they can have the course up to the age of 10.

How the vaccine works

The whooping cough vaccine contains bacteria that have been killed, so they can’t multiply and give you the disease. When you’re injected, your body starts to make antibodies to fight off the bacteria, even though they’re not alive. Young children may need several injections to produce this response. When your child is given their booster jab, their body recognises the whooping cough bacteria and makes more antibodies more quickly. If they come into contact with the whooping cough infection later, their immune system is ready to respond.

Although your child may have some protection against whooping cough after one dose of the vaccine, each extra dose offers greater protection. The four doses offer the best protection for your child for the longest possible time.

Whooping cough vaccine in pregnant women

In the UK, all pregnant women are offered a booster vaccine for whooping cough. You’ll be offered it between 16 and 32 weeks of pregnancy, but it’s usually timed to coincide with your 20-week scan. Having the vaccination when you’re pregnant will boost levels of antibodies against whooping cough in your blood, and these antibodies will then be passed on to your baby. This will help to protect them from whooping cough as soon as they’re born, until they are old enough to have the vaccination themselves.

Antibiotics for prevention

To help prevent the spread of whooping cough, doctors may ask people who’ve been in contact with whooping cough to take antibiotics even if they don’t have symptoms. This is most likely for:

  • babies who haven’t had all their vaccinations yet
  • older children and adults who had their whooping cough vaccination more than five years ago
  • women who are more than 32 weeks pregnant and haven’t had a whooping cough vaccination in the last five years

No, your child can’t go to school if they have whooping cough. You should keep them home from school or nursery and speak to a GP. They’ll need to be off school or nursery until they’ve taken antibiotics for at least 48 hours. If you choose not to give your child antibiotics, they’ll need to stay away from school for three weeks from when their symptoms started.

The first stages of whooping cough are like a cold and you may have a runny nose, sneezing and a sore throat. In the next stage, you’ll probably have regular bouts of severe coughing but in between coughing fits, you might feel quite well. The final stage of whooping cough can last up to three months and during this time, your cough will gradually get better, although you may still get coughing fits if you pick up another infection, such as a cold.

For more information, see our section on symptoms of whooping cough.

While most people will recover (particularly children over 12 months and adults), whooping cough can have complications and be a serious condition in young infants. Whooping cough is a notifiable disease, which means GPs have to tell the health protection team in their local health authority. The team will then contact other people to let them know they’ve come into contact with the infection.

For more information, see our section on complications of whooping cough.

You can get whooping cough if you’re infected with a bacterium called Bordetella pertussis. It’s spread through droplets in the air when an infected person coughs.

For more information, see our section on causes of whooping cough.

At first it may be hard to tell if you have whooping cough as you’ll have symptoms similar to a cold. But you’ll go on to develop a severe cough and you’ll probably have regular coughing fits. Young children can often make a ‘whoop’ sound as they draw in breath (the whooping cough sound) at the end of a bout of coughing.

For more information, see our section on causes of whooping cough.

There isn’t any treatment for whooping cough and it will gradually get better on its own but your doctor may prescribe you some antibiotics. While antibiotics won’t usually help with your symptoms (including your cough), they may help to prevent the infection spreading to other people. While you’re feeling unwell, get plenty of rest and drinks to keep hydrated. Some babies and people with severe symptoms need to go into hospital for treatment.

For more information, see our section on treatment of whooping cough.

More on this topic

Did our Whooping cough information help you?

We’d love to hear what you think. Our short survey takes just a few minutes to complete and helps us to keep improving our health information.

The health information on this page is intended for informational purposes only. We do not endorse any commercial products, or include Bupa's fees for treatments and/or services. For more information about prices visit:

This information was published by Bupa's Health Content Team and is based on reputable sources of medical evidence. It has been reviewed by appropriate medical or clinical professionals and deemed accurate on the date of review. Photos are only for illustrative purposes and do not reflect every presentation of a condition.

Any information about a treatment or procedure is generic, and does not necessarily describe that treatment or procedure as delivered by Bupa or its associated providers.

The information contained on this page and in any third party websites referred to on this page is not intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice nor is it intended to be for medical diagnosis or treatment. Third party websites are not owned or controlled by Bupa and any individual may be able to access and post messages on them. Bupa is not responsible for the content or availability of these third party websites. We do not accept advertising on this page.

  • Whooping cough. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries., last revised April 2022
  • Pertussis. BMJ Best Practice., last reviewed 14 January 2023
  • Whooping cough. Patient., last edited 30 September 2020
  • Guidance. Notifiable diseases and causative organisms: How to report. UK Health Security Agency., last updated 30 September 2022
  • Guidelines for the public health management of pertussis in England. Public Health England., last updated 3 May 2018
  • Personal communication, Dr Melanie Hill, Lead Physician, Bupa, 13 March 2023
  • Pertussis. Lauria AM, Zabbo CP. Statpearls publishing., last updated 7 October 2022
  • Immunizations – childhood. NICE Clinical Knowledge Summaries., last revised August 2022
  • Immunity and how vaccines work: The green book. UK Health Security Agency., last updated 5 January 2021
  • Pertussis vaccine. NICE British National Formulary., last updated 1 February 2023
The Patient Information Forum tick

Our information has been awarded the PIF tick for trustworthy health information.

Content is loading