What causes whooping cough (pertussis)?

Whooping cough is caused by the bacteria Bordetella pertussis.

Whooping cough is spread through droplets in the air that contain the bacteria. When someone with the infection sneezes or coughs, these droplets can be breathed in by others, or transferred to anyone who touches a surface contaminated with droplets containing the bacteria.

Whooping cough can be prevented by vaccination and is treated with antibiotics.

Who is at risk of whooping cough infection?

Whooping cough can affect anyone who has not been vaccinated.

Babies younger than 6 months are at the greatest risk of catching whooping cough and of severe infection as they won’t have had their full set of vaccinations, and will not be fully immune.

Children and babies with a severe case of whooping cough will need to be hospitalised and can die from the infection, so it is very important that they are kept away from anyone who has the infection, to prevent them from catching it.

Teenagers and adults can also catch whooping cough. This is because immunity to the whooping cough bacteria decreases with time, even if you have been vaccinated or you have had whooping cough in the past. So it’s important that your child has all the recommended booster vaccinations.

A booster dose of the whooping cough vaccine is also recommended for anyone who cares for infants and young children, to prevent them passing on the infection to children who are not immune. This includes:

  • adults planning a pregnancy
  • grandparents
  • healthcare workers
  • childcare workers.

The vaccination for adults is not funded by the National Immunisation Program, but some states and territories offer free whooping cough vaccinations to parents and grandparents. Your doctor can advise you about this.

Find out more about the whooping cough (pertussis) vaccines, who should have them and when, and the possible side effects of the pertussis vaccines.