What is whooping cough? Symptoms parents should look for as cases rise

Whooping cough is sometimes called the "100-day cough" because of how long it can take to recover from. It is very contagious and can be extremely serious for young babies.

Whooping cough cases have risen sharply in the UK, with doctors warning the infection is “extremely serious” for young babies.

Here is what you need to know about the symptoms, vaccine and treatment.

What is whooping cough?

Whooping cough is sometimes called the “100-day cough” because of how long it can take to recover from.

The bacterial infection, also known as pertussis, affects the lungs and breathing tubes and causes bouts of coughing.

It is highly contagious and is spread in the droplets of coughs and sneezes.

What are the symptoms of whooping cough?

The first symptoms are similar to that of a cold and may include:

• runny nose
• red and watery eyes
• sore throat
• slightly raised temperature


Intense coughing bouts start about a week later, according to the NHS.

The bouts are typically more common at night and can last a few minutes.

Between coughs, you or your child may gasp for breath, causing a “whoop” sound. However, not everyone has this.

The coughing bouts may cause difficulty breathing, and young infants in particular may turn blue or grey.

“This often looks worse than it is and their breathing should start again quickly,” according to NHS Inform.

The coughing may also bring up a thick mucus, which can make you vomit.

The bouts can also cause the face to become very red, particularly in adults.

How serious is whooping cough?

“Whooping cough can affect people of all ages but for very young babies it can be extremely serious,” according to Dr Gayatri Amirthalingam, consultant epidemiologist at the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA).

Babies under 6 months old with whooping cough have a higher risk of problems including dehydration, breathing difficulties, pneumonia and seizures, according to the NHS.

Five babies died of whooping cough between January and the end of March 2024.

People who are infected with whooping cough can pass on the bacteria to others for two to three weeks.

“As a disease, whooping cough is as infectious as measles, and more infectious than COVID-19,” said Dr Michael Head, senior research fellow in global health at the University of Southampton.

How common is whooping cough?

Health officials describe whooping cough as a “cyclical disease”, meaning it peaks every three to five years, with the last big increase in 2016.

There were 2,793 cases reported to the end of March, according to provisional data from the UKHSA.

There were 1,319 cases reported in March alone, according to the provisional data. There were 556 cases recorded in January and 918 in February.

How can you protect yourself or your child from whooping cough?

The NHS recommends all pregnant women are vaccinated against whooping cough between 16 and 32 weeks.

This means the immunity is passed through the placenta to protect newborn babies in their first weeks of life.

The whooping cough vaccine is routinely given to babies as part of the 6-in-1 vaccine at eight, 12 and 16 weeks.

It is also part of the 4-in-1 pre-school booster given to children at 3 years and 4 months.

Dr Head said a drop in the number of people being vaccinated is a “key factor” in the increase in cases.

“It’s vital that vulnerable groups such as babies and pregnant women are up to date with their recommended immunisations,” he said.

“The vaccine is safe, and extremely effective.”

How is whooping cough treated?

If whooping cough is diagnosed within three weeks, antibiotics will be given to help stop it spreading to others.

If you’ve had whooping cough for longer than that, you are no longer contagious and do not need antibiotics, according to the NHS.

It is important to stay off school, work or nursery until 48 hours after starting antibiotics, or three weeks after symptoms started if you’ve not had antibiotics.

The NHS advises getting plenty of rest and fluids to treat the symptoms of whooping cough.

Paracetamol and ibuprofen may help – although they’re not to be given at the same time to under-16s – but cough medicine does not help with this type of cough.

What should you do if you or your child have symptoms?

NHS advises you should ask for an urgent GP appointment or call NHS 111 if:

• you have a baby under six months with whooping cough symptoms
• you’re pregnant and have been in contact with someone with whooping cough
• you (or your child) has a weakened immune system and have been in contact with someone with whooping cough
• you or your child has a very bad cough that is getting worse

You should call 999 or go to A&E if:

• your or your child’s lips, tongue, face or skin suddenly turn blue or grey (on black or brown skin this may be easier to see on the palms of the hands or the soles of the feet)
• you or your child are finding it hard to breathe properly
• you or your child have chest pain that’s worse when breathing or coughing – this could be a sign of pneumonia
• your child is having seizures (fits)

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