What are the medicines and treatments for whooping cough (pertussis)?

It is much better to avoid whooping cough by having the whooping cough vaccination. Vaccination protects the person who is vaccinated and the whole community — including unvaccinated babies.

Whooping cough is treated with antibiotics, usually azithromycin, clarithromycin, or erythromycin.

Treatments for babies and children younger than 1 year old

Young babies and children who are younger than 1 year old with suspected whooping cough will usually be diagnosed and treated in hospital. This is because the infection can be severe in babies and they are at high risk of the complications of the infection.

If your child has to go to hospital, they may need to be kept separate from other patients, as whooping cough is very infectious.

Your child will be given antibiotics, usually azithromycin, clarithromycin, or erythromycin for 5-7 days, straight into their veins through a drip (intravenously), to clear the infection more quickly.

If your child’s breathing is affected, they may also be given corticosteroids. Corticosteroids reduce inflammation (swelling) in the airways and throat, opening up the airways to help your child breathe. If necessary, they may be also given oxygen to breathe through a face mask.

It is important that you tell your health professional about all the medicines you or anyone in your care is taking — including prescription, over-the-counter and complementary (herbal/’natural’/vitamin/mineral) medicines. This is because all medicines, including herbal and natural medicines, can cause side effects and may interact with other medicines.

Older children and adults

Older children and adults who have been diagnosed with whooping cough should stay at home and avoid coming into contact with other people especially babies and young children.

Whooping cough is usually a much less serious infection in older children, and adults who will have developed some immunity to the infection if they have been vaccinated with the whooping cough vaccines.

If you are diagnosed with whooping cough within the first 3 weeks of the infection, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics, usually azithromycin, clarithromycin, or erythromycin. These antibiotics will help clear the bacteria from your body.

If you have been prescribed antibiotics – take the course of antibiotics for as long as prescribed by your doctor, or as instructed by the pharmacist or printed on the pharmacist’s label.

You must keep taking your antibiotics even if you are feeling better.

After taking the antibiotics for about 5 days, you will no longer be infectious (i.e. you won’t spread the infection to anyone else).

If you are diagnosed after you have had your cough for more than 3 weeks, your doctor may not prescribe antibiotics. This is because your body’s immune system will already have started to clear the infection, and it is too late for the antibiotics to help your symptoms.

Managing your symptoms

Whether or not you have been prescribed antibiotics for your whooping cough infection, you can manage your symptoms by:

  • Resting
  • Drinking lots of non-alcoholic fluids to prevent dehydration
  • Spitting out any mucus or vomit when you cough so it can’t be breathed in again and cause choking.

Even though you or your child may still have a cough for longer than 3 weeks, it is unlikely that you will still be infectious.

Phone for medicines information

Call NPS Medicines Line on 1300 MEDICINE (1300 633 424) to get information about your prescription, over-the-counter and complementary medicines (herbal, ‘natural’, vitamins and mineral supplements) from a pharmacist. Your call will be answered by healthdirect Australia (except Queensland and Victoria).