Whooping cough (pertussis) vaccine

What is it for?

This vaccine prevents you from becoming infected with the bacteria that cause whooping cough (Bordetella pertussis).

Whooping cough can be a serious respiratory tract infection that is very easily spread (highly contagious). If left untreated, it can progress from an upper respiratory tract infection (in the nose, throat and windpipe) into a lung infection (pertussis pneumonia). Children with whooping cough may need to be hospitalised and can die from the infection.

Vaccinating against whooping cough saves lives


Share one family's sad experience with whooping cough and find out why it's so important to vaccinate against this potentially fatal infection (from the Tonic series produced with the assistance of NPS).

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 may touch a surface contaminated with the bacteria.

Whooping cough usually starts off with cold-like symptoms, and develops into a cough. A bout of coughing is often followed by a deep intake of breath making the characteristic ‘whoop’ sound suggested by the name. The cough can last for a few months. A serious complication of whooping cough is a lack of oxygen to the brain (hypoxic encephalopathy) that can lead to brain damage.

Who should be vaccinated?

Whooping cough can affect anyone who has not been vaccinated, but children younger than 6 months are at the greatest risk of severe infection as they won’t have had their full set of vaccinations, and will not be fully immune.

It is important that people who care for young infants (e.g. parents and grandparents) also have a whooping cough vaccine, to prevent them passing on the infection to young children who are not fully immune.

Immunity to whooping cough decreases with time so it’s important that you and your child have all the recommended booster vaccinations. You can still be vaccinated if you have had whooping cough in the past, as your immunity after you have had the disease will also decrease within 6-10 years.

For more information, see the National Centre for Immunisation Research and Surveillance fact sheet about whooping cough.

Children

Children in Australia are vaccinated against whooping cough in a combined vaccine given as a single injection. There are four vaccinations given free at different ages as part of the National Immunisation Program schedule.

Children 6 weeks to 6 months old

A combined vaccine that protects against whooping cough is given free to all children at 6 weeks to 2 months, 4 months and again at 6 months old as part of the National Immunisation Program schedule.

The combined vaccine also protects your child against five other diseases including diphtheria, tetanuspolio, hepatitis B and Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib).

Children aged 3.5 to 4 years

Children in this age group are given a combined booster vaccination that protects against whooping cough (pertussis) and three other diseases: diphtheria, tetanus, and polio. This vaccination is given free as part of the National Immunisation Program schedule.

Adolescents 11 to 13 years old

Adolescents aged 11 to 13 years are given a combined booster vaccination that protects against whooping cough as well as diphtheria, and tetanus. This vaccination is given free as part of the National Immunisation Program schedule.

Adults

The body’s immunity to whooping cough infection will get less with time (within 6-10 years), so a booster dose of the vaccine is recommended for adults who are:

  • planning a pregnancy
  • at risk of whooping cough infection (e.g. healthcare workers)
  • in contact with young children (e.g. grandparents, and childcare workers)
  • 65 years or older and who have not had a whooping cough booster in the previous 10 years.

The vaccination for adults is not funded by the National Immunisation Program.

Pregnant women

The whooping cough vaccine can be given to pregnant women during the third trimester of pregnancy if they are at risk of infection.

Read more about what vaccines you can have if you are pregnant.

Women who are breastfeeding

The whooping cough vaccine can be given to women who are breastfeeding. There is no known risk to your unborn baby if you have the vaccination.

Women who are breastfeeding can be vaccinated with any vaccine except the yellow fever vaccine.

Side effects

Common side effects (that affect 1 to 10 in every 100 people) include:

  • your child may cry more than usual and be irritable
  • drowsiness
  • restlessness
  • painful, red swelling on the arm or thigh.

Side effects of the combination vaccines that contain pertussis and polio include:

  • vomiting
  • diarrhoea
  • loss of appetite
  • fever (i.e. a temperature of 38.5°C or higher).

Read more about vaccine side effects and safety.

Who can I ask about side effects?

If you’re concerned that you or your child may have had side effects related to a vaccine, seek medical advice. To report and discuss possible side effects, call the Adverse Medicines Events (AME) Line on 1300 134 237 from anywhere in Australia (Monday–Friday, 9am–5pm AEST).

References
  1. Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing. Office of Health Protection. 4.12 Pertussis. In: The Australian Immunisation Handbook, 10th edn.
  2. Rossi S, ed. eAMH [online]. Adelaide: Australian Medicines Handbook, January 2013.

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