Whooping cough (also called pertussis) is a bacterial infection of the lungs and breathing tubes. It spreads very easily.
The first signs of whooping cough are like a cold.
After about a week, you or your child:
- will get coughing bouts that last for a few minutes and are worse at night
- will make a "whoop" sound – a gasp for breath between coughs (young babies and some adults may not "whoop")
- may bring up a thick mucus, which can make you sick (vomit)
- may become very red in the face (more common in adults)
Babies under 6 months old have increased chances of problems including:
Whooping cough is less severe in older children and adults but coughing may cause problems including:
Treatment for whooping cough depends on your age and how long you've had the infection.
If your whooping cough is severe, or your baby is under 6 months old and has whooping cough, you'll usually need treatment in hospital.
If diagnosed within 3 weeks of the infection, you'll be given antibiotics to help stop it spreading to others. Antibiotics may not reduce symptoms.
If you've had whooping cough for more than 3 weeks, you're no longer contagious and do not need antibiotics.
Keep taking the antibiotics until you've completed the course, even if you feel better.
Things you can do to relieve the symptoms of whooping cough
get plenty of rest
drink lots of fluids
take paracetamol or ibuprofen to relieve discomfort
do not give a child under 16 paracetamol and ibuprofen at the same time – always check first with a GP or pharmacist
do not give aspirin to children under 16
do not take cough medicines – they're not suitable for young children and do not help with this type of cough
You're contagious from about 6 days after the start of cold-like symptoms to 3 weeks after the coughing starts.
If you start antibiotics within 3 weeks of starting to cough, it will reduce the time you're contagious for.
The whooping cough vaccine protects babies and children from getting whooping cough. That's why it's important to have all the routine NHS vaccinations.
The whooping cough vaccine is routinely given as part of:
- the 6-in-1 vaccine - for babies at 8, 12 and 16 weeks
- the 4-in-1 pre-school booster – for pre-school children
If you're pregnant you should also have the whooping cough vaccine – ideally between 16 and 32 weeks.
Read more about the whooping cough vaccination in pregnancy.