Whooping cough (pertussis)

This is caused by the bacterium (germ) Bordetella pertussis. The incubation period is 7-14 days. It is highly infectious and spreads from person to person via droplets from the nose and mouth.

It starts with what seems like a slight cold, with a runny nose and cough which is mild at first.

It progresses to bouts of coughing that end in vomiting and which are worse at night or after feeding. The characteristic ‘whoop’ is not always present. The illness can be difficult to diagnose, particularly in its milder forms.

Antibiotics do not help very much with the symptoms but can help to prevent spread of infection. The cough can persist for weeks.

If suspected, the child should be given an antibiotic and kept off school for 5 days while taking the medication.

Most recover completely but complications include

  • Prolonged illness (>3months).
  • The coughing bouts may cause tiny spots of bruising on the cheeks and the surface of the eye.
  • Brain damage.
  • Permanent damage to the lungs
  • Death can occur - most commonly in infants less than 12 months old.

It is commonest around the age of 3 years and can occur in previously immunised children, although usually in a mild form.

Further information


This article published on
01 September 2005

Next review date 10/1/2013


Children's health

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