Information on Whooping Cough

27 February 2013

In 2011 there were 30 reported cases of whooping cough in Taranaki and in 2012 there was 131 cases reported.

Whooping cough (or pertussis) is a highly contagious illness that is caused by a bacterium (Bordatella pertussis). It can affect babies, children and adults. Whooping cough usually starts like a cold, with a runny nose and sneezing, and then the characteristic cough develops. Coughing bouts can be very severe and frightening, and may end with a crowing noise as breath is drawn in (the whoop). Coughing fits can be followed by gagging or vomiting.

Many cases occur in adolescents and adults who may just have a persistent annoying cough, however, for young children, especially babies, whooping cough can be life threatening. The cough can interfere with a baby’s breathing and they may lack oxygen and turn blue. Young children are especially at risk of severe illness, which may result in hospitalisation. One in four children develops pneumonia. Some have fits (convulsions) and some may develop inflammation of the brain (encephalitis).

Whooping cough is spread by an infected person through droplets produced during coughing or sneezing. Direct contact with infected secretions from the mouth and nose can also pass on the infection.

After exposure to the pertussis bacterium, it usually takes nine to ten days to become ill, but illness may start anywhere between 6 to 20 days from being infected.

The coughing may last from a few weeks to 3 months or more. One attack of the disease usually produces long-term immunity, though second attacks in the same individual can occur. Children who are unimmunised are at especially high risk of infection.

A person is highly infectious for the first two weeks of their cough. This gradually decreases until at 21 days from the onset of the cough when cases are no longer infectious, although coughing may still last up to three months. Treated cases are no longer infectious after they have received 5 days of a course of antibiotics.

Treatment is usually a course of antibiotics which reduce the time a person is infectious to others. Antibiotics need to be given within 21 days of the start of the cough. In general, antibiotics do not reduce the severity of symptoms or the duration of the cough, but do reduce transmission.

A person with whooping cough should stay away from work, school and child care until they have had five days of a course of antibiotics, or until 21 days after the start of the coughing or until the end of coughing, which ever comes first.

The best way to prevent whooping cough is by immunisation. Newborns children are not protected by antibodies from their mother, even if the mother has previously had whooping cough and young infants with the disease suffer more complications and are more likely to be admitted to hospital. Because of this, expectant mothers are recommended to be vaccinated for whooping cough when they are between 28 and 38 weeks pregnant. The immunisation is free and can be obtained from a General Practitioner’s surgery.

For infants, it takes three immunisations for whooping cough at 6 weeks, 3 months and 5 months to obtain immunity so it is very important to start the immunisations on time.

The protection provided by childhood vaccination gradually reduces over time, leaving adolescents and adults potentially at risk of catching the disease.

For more information please call
Sue Carrington
Media Adviser
Ph 021 367 789

Last updated: Friday, March 1, 2013

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