How can you prevent whooping cough?

Bupa Logo at the reception
Associate Clinical Director, Bupa Health Clinics
31 May 2024
Next review due May 2027

Recently there has been a rise in whooping cough cases in the UK. Whooping cough (pertussis) is a bacterial infection that can be easily spread to others. It mainly affects the lungs and airways and can affect people of any age.

Thankfully most people recover without significant problems, but the infection can be serious in young infants and babies. Here, I’ll discuss what you need to know about whooping cough and how to prevent its spread.

doctor vaccinating a child

What are the symptoms of whooping cough?

Whooping cough causes a persistent cough and has the potential to cause breathing difficulties. Symptoms typically start 7 to 10 days after exposure, and can include a runny nose, sore throat, and mild cough.

After about a week you or your child may experience:

  • fits of coughing that can last a few minutes and be difficult to control – you might also cough up thick mucus
  • gasping in between coughs (this can cause the distinctive ‘whooping’ sound)
  • a cough that’s worse at night
  • vomiting after coughing
  • sweating and facial flushing (more common in adults)

These symptoms can last from a few weeks to a few months. You won’t usually be infectious after the first three weeks of symptoms.

If you notice symptoms in your child, it’s important to contact their GP immediately to discuss diagnosis and potential treatments.

How can I protect my child against whooping cough?

The whooping cough vaccine is the most effective way of preventing whooping cough. It is routinely offered in the UK along with other vaccinations as a:

  • 6-in-1 vaccine to babies at 8, 12, and 16 weeks of age
  • 4-in-1 pre-school booster for children aged 3 years and 4 months old

If you’re pregnant, it’s also very important that you have the whooping cough vaccine to help protect your unborn child.

The vaccine is most effective between 16 and 32 weeks of pregnancy. You’ll need to be vaccinated during each pregnancy as it’s your immune response to the vaccine that creates the protection for your unborn child.

If you’re worried about your symptoms or risk of spreading the infection, seek advice from your GP.

Why are cases of whooping cough rising?

The number of cases of whooping cough has greatly increased in recent months. The number of cases peaks every three to five years, although they decreased during the pandemic due to public restrictions. This is likely to have caused a delayed peak, which could explain the rise in cases since the end of restrictions.

Heath experts believe that the rise in cases may be due to a decline in the number of pregnant women and children taking the vaccine. This could be because of a lack of public information encouraging people to get the vaccine, or misinformation about its safety.

Vaccination during pregnancy is the best way to protect young infants. Research has shown the vaccine is safe and effective during pregnancy.

How can whooping cough be treated?

If you or your child have had whooping cough for less than three weeks, antibiotics could help fight the infection. It’s important that you take the full course of antibiotics you’re prescribed, even if you or your child start to feel better.

You may also be prescribed antibiotics if you’ve come into close contact with someone with whooping cough, and you’re at increased risk of complications. This includes infants who haven’t been vaccinated, and pregnant women.

There are things you can do at home to help you to feel better.

  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Take time off work or school, and avoid contact with others for 48 hours after antibiotic treatment (or 21 days if you’ve not had antibiotics).
  • Drink lots of fluid.
  • Take over-the-counter painkillers, such as ibuprofen and paracetamol.

When should I seek medical advice or urgent help?

If your child is struggling to breathe properly, you should go to hospital straight away, or call an ambulance if necessary. Younger babies are at greater risk of complications. You should seek medical advice if you’re worried about their breathing, feeding, or general condition. If it’s not an emergency, but you’re unsure about your child’s symptoms or how to relieve them, call 111 or contact your GP for advice.

We now offer GP appointments for children under 18. Find out more about our Under 18 GP Service, call us on 0330 822 3072.

Bupa Logo at the reception
Dr John Field
Associate Clinical Director, Bupa Health Clinics



Annie Fry, Health Content Editor at Bupa UK

    • Whooping cough. NICE CKS., last updated March 2024
    • Confirmed cases of pertussis in England by month. GOV.UK, updated May 2024
    • What are the clinical features of whooping cough? NICE CKS., last updated March 2024
    • Guidance: Information for individuals diagnosed with whooping cough. GOV.UK, published January 2024
    • Scenario: Management of whooping cough. NICE CKS., last updated March 2024
    • Whooping cough vaccination in pregnancy guide. GOV.UK, updated May 2022
    • Wise J. Whooping cough: What’s behind the rise in cases and deaths in England? BMJ 2024;385 doi:, published 17 May 2024

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