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.
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What is whooping cough (pertussis)?

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.

Who is at risk of catching whooping cough?

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.

What harm can whooping cough cause to 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.

To read a patient story please click here.

What is 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.

When can I receive the whooping cough vaccine?

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.

You may be able to have this vaccination at the same time as your 20 week scan if your maternity unit is providing this service. 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.

Will my baby benefit from me having the whooping cough vaccine?

Yes both directly and indirectly.

Studies show that the whooping cough vaccine is around 92% effective at preventing the disease in new-born babies if given between 16-32 weeks. This means that if 100 babies from vaccinated mothers were exposed to the whooping cough vaccine, only 8 of these babies would be likely catch the illness. The numbers of deaths due to whooping cough in young babies has dropped significantly since the introduction of the maternal vaccine in 2012.

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.

Is the whooping cough vaccine safe in pregnancy?

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.

Does the whooping cough vaccine work in pregnancy?

There is good, strong evidence that the vaccine works extremely well. Studies show that babies born to vaccinated mothers are highly protected. The vaccine is around 92% effective – meaning out of 100 babies born to vaccinated mothers, only 8 babies would catch pertussis if exposed to the bacteria.

What else can I do additionally to protect myself?

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.

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