Whooping cough (pertussis)

Whooping cough is a serious and contagious bacterial infection of the lungs and airways which is spread easily through coughs, sneezes and close contact. It is one of the most common vaccine-preventable diseases in the United Kingdom. It is an extremely serious infection in young babies.

Whooping cough causes serious long bursts of continuous coughing and choking, which makes it difficult to breathe. This sometimes causes a ‘whoop’ noise where there is an attempt to gasp for breath between coughing.

Symptoms in adults and children may include:

  • Cold like symptoms (runny nose, red and watery eyes, sore throat and slightly raised temperature).
  • Intense coughing bouts lasting a few minutes at a time (usually starting a week from onset of cold like symptoms).
  • Coughing up thick mucus which may be followed by vomiting.
  • Gasping for breath between coughing causing a ‘whoop’ noise (although not everyone experiences this).
  • Slight bleeding to the eyes or under skin from intense coughing.
  • Turning blue (babies and young children) from difficulty breathing.

In new born (and very young) babies, the cough may not be particularly noticeable but there may be brief periods where they stop breathing.

The coughing bouts will start to become less severe and less frequent over time. The infection usually lasts for around 2-3 months and the severity of the infection is different from person to person; it is usually serious.

Whooping cough can affect people of any age if they are to come in close contact with someone else who has the whooping cough infection. People are contagious from about 6 days after being infected (usually as cold-like symptoms are starting) until around 3 weeks after the coughing bouts start.

Those at risk of catching whooping cough:

  • Babies and young children (increased risk).
  • Older children and adults (usually less serious).
  • People who have had whooping cough before (a previous infection does not provide immunity against the disease).
  • People vaccinated against whooping cough as a child (protection from the childhood vaccine usually wears off within a few years).

Certain groups are more vulnerable to infection in particular new born babies.

People of any age can catch whooping cough but is most dangerous for new born babies. This is because babies have poorly developed immune systems and it is harder for them to fight off infections.

Whooping cough can cause:

  • Temporary pauses in breathing and difficulty breathing.
  • Weight loss due to excessive vomiting.
  • Pneumonia
  • Seizures or brain damage.
  • Encephalitis (swelling of the brain).
  • Hospitalisation
  • Death

In 2012 there was a big increase in the number of people catching whooping cough; 400 babies were affected and of these, 12 babies died. Since 2012 around 300 babies every year are admitted to hospital for care because of whooping cough. The number of babies dying from whooping cough is increasing. It is known that the babies that do safely die from whooping cough are often those that are infected before they were old enough to receive their own vaccination. This is why the vaccination during pregnancy is so important.

To prevent further deaths and serious harm to babies, since 2012 it has been recommended that all pregnant women are offered the whooping cough vaccine.


The whooping cough vaccine is an injection given to pregnant women to protect their new-born babies from the disease, as well as themselves. It is a 4 in 1 vaccine, providing protection against diphtheria, tetanus and polio in addition to whooping cough. A single dose whooping cough vaccine does not yet exist.

It is not a live vaccine, it has been inactivated (killed) and therefore you cannot catch whooping cough or any of the other diseases from having the vaccine.

Over the two weeks after receiving a whooping cough vaccination, your body begins creating antibodies that protect you against infection should you come in contact with someone carrying the disease. These antibodies also pass through the placenta to your baby who will remain protected until they receive their whooping cough vaccine at around 8 weeks of age.

You still need to have a whooping cough vaccine even if you received one yourself as a child or if you have already had one as an adult in a previous pregnancy because protection only lasts for a limited time.

The whooping cough vaccine is safe to have from 16 weeks in pregnancy. It is available all year round and it is recommended that pregnant women have the vaccine before 32 weeks to ensure maximum protection to their babies.

Please speak with your midwife to see what services are available to you.

To be effective and to provide each baby with the same level of protection, it is recommended that you have a whooping cough vaccine in each pregnancy. This is because antibodies do not stay at high levels in the blood for very long.

Yes both directly and indirectly.

Studies show that the whooping cough vaccine is effective at preventing the disease in most new-born babies if given between 16-32 weeks. 

Being vaccinated against whooping cough also means that as a mother you are less likely to catch it yourself and therefore are less likely to pass it on to your baby once they are born.

Since being routinely introduced in 2012, data from 20,000 women who have received the vaccine during pregnancy show that there is no evidence of an increase in the risk of congenital abnormalities or stillbirths.

Healthcare professionals recommend vaccinations based on evidence that shows a strong benefit to very little or no known risk.

There is good, strong evidence that the vaccine works extremely well in most cases.

To ensure your child continues to receive protection against whooping cough it is recommended that you take your child along to start their childhood vaccinations and ensure they complete the whole vaccine programme. These will start at around 8 weeks of age.

Avoid contact with anyone you suspect may have whooping cough while you are pregnant and also once the baby is born.

For further information from NHS 111 Wales please click here

Improving the physical and emotional health and wellbeing of expectant mothers, infants, children and young people throughout Aneurin Bevan University Health Board Area.

(N.B: The Family and Therapies team at ABUHB is NOT responsible for the content on the webpage links that we refer to in our resource sections and linked information to external sites. All information was accurate and appropriate at the time the webpage was created.)

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