Whooping cough: what you need to know

Lead Nurse in Paediatrics at Bupa Cromwell Hospital
22 September 2016

Whooping cough is on the rise. Babies and young children are most likely to catch it, but older children and adults are now being infected too. It can be a worry if you know someone with this highly infectious disease. So how can you protect yourself – and your family?

Three young girls sat on a sofa

Essential vaccination

The best way to prevent whooping cough, also called pertussis, is to make sure your whole family is fully vaccinated. Most people have diphtheria, tetanus and whooping cough (DTP) vaccinations as part of their childhood jabs. You usually have four doses overall – one dose at two, three and four months, and then a booster between the ages of three years and four months and five years.

Whooping cough is becoming more common again as some parents aren’t getting their children vaccinated. Babies, in particular, can be very unwell if they catch it. The cough can be exhausting, and the infection can cause pneumonia, fits (seizures) and dehydration if it isn’t treated. Vaccination doesn’t protect you for life, as your immunity will reduce over time. But, if you do catch the infection and have been vaccinated, your symptoms will be much milder.

Spotting the signs

Whooping cough is a bacterial infection that can affect people of all ages. The first symptoms are like a cold or flu, with a blocked or runny nose, sneezing, slight fever, watery eyes and cough. But after 10 to 14 days, the dry hacking cough gets worse and more regular. You, or your child, may have intense coughing fits lasting for several minutes, occasionally followed by a loud ‘whoop’ sound. The coughing fit can make you turn red and vomit afterwards.

Whooping cough can be a serious infection, especially in babies and people who have other illnesses, such as a heart or lung problem. The constant coughing can be distressing, particularly in babies under one year. In older children and adults, the infection tends to be milder, but it can still take a while to disappear. Sometimes the cough can last for up to three months, even when treated with antibiotics. This is why in some countries, whooping cough is called the 100-day cough.

Stop the spread

Whooping cough spreads very easily when people cough. You’re most likely to catch it in the first three weeks after the cough appears. Eight in 10 people who are exposed to whooping cough will catch it if they haven’t been vaccinated or had the infection before. If you know someone with whooping cough, you should try to avoid direct contact with them for the first three weeks. This is also important if you’ve had the infection yourself, as it’s possible to catch whooping cough again.

If you suspect you, or your child, has whooping cough, it’s essential that you speak to your GP. Your GP will prescribe antibiotics and you’ll need to stay at home to stop the infection spreading. Anyone who’s diagnosed with the infection should stay off nursery, school or work for at least three weeks after their symptoms appear. This reduces to five days once you start taking the antibiotics. It takes time to get better but you should make a full recovery.




Here at Bupa we understand how important your family is. So with our family health insurance you can rest assured knowing that eligible treatment and support is available for your loved ones when you need it.

Dieter Aretz
Lead Nurse in Paediatrics at Bupa Cromwell Hospital

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