With recent reports that New Zealand could be at risk of a whooping cough outbreak, we take a look at what it is, who is vulnerable, and how to stay protected.

What is pertussis (whooping cough)?

Whooping cough is a disease that causes bouts of coughing, and can be very serious in babies and children, especially those under 1 year old or with heart or lung conditions. It’s caused by a type of bacteria called Bordetella pertussis, which damages the lining of the nose, throat and breathing tubes and causes coughing. Pertussis is called whooping cough because of the ‘whoop’ noise some children make after coughing.

Who is most at risk from whooping cough?

The elderly, babies and young children are particularly vulnerable, especially if babies under 6 weeks old have not had all their immunisations, or have a heart or lung condition. Whooping cough in very young babies is unpredictable and can get worse very quickly.

Whooping cough is less severe in older children and adults, but can still be distressing.

What are the symptoms of whooping cough?

Whooping cough affects people differently depending on their age. The younger your child, the greater the risk of them getting seriously ill. If your child gets sick with whooping cough, you should seek advice from your health professional.

Babies under 6 months old do not usually ‘whoop’. They may be unable to feed because of coughing, vomit after coughing bouts, and get exhausted. In severe cases, they may stop breathing, go blue, or become very sleepy and difficult to rouse, in which case you must dial 111.

In older babies and young children, whooping cough starts with cold-like symptoms for 1-2 weeks. Next, there is an irritating cough, which gets worse over a week or two. They might gasp for air between each bout of coughing and get red in the face. These spells may last many minutes, and they may vomit afterwards. The cough often gets worse with swallowing or eating. The final stage is the recovery period. Symptoms get less severe, but the cough continues for weeks or months.

Older children and adults may get a less severe illness, particularly if they have had whooping cough before, but most still have a long-lasting irritating cough.

How do I care for my child with whooping cough?

If your child has whooping cough, they should stay away from people outside the family (especially other children) for 3 weeks, to stop the infection spreading. The doctor may prescribe antibiotics, in which case the time the person is infectious goes down to 5 days.

Your child will need rest at the beginning when the bouts of coughing are most intense. They should drink fluids and eat healthy small meals, and they can have paracetamol if the coughing is painful. Cough medicine is not recommended.

If your child is very young or very unwell, or they have any complications, seek medical attention urgently.

Can I prevent my child from getting whooping cough?

Vaccination against whooping cough reduces your child’s risk of catching the disease and makes it less severe if they do. The vaccine is part of the NZ Immunisation Schedule and is given at 6 weeks, 3 months and 5 months. Two booster doses are given at ages 4 and 11.

Most cases of whooping cough in babies are passed on by family members, who can be infectious without realising. People who are around pregnant mums and babies should have a whooping cough vaccination. The protection from vaccination wanes over time, so check with your healthcare provider whether you need a booster injection.

For more information on whooping cough visit the Ministry of Health website.

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