Whooping cough 


How common is it?

The introduction of a vaccination programme during the 1950s and the introduction of a pre-school booster jab in 2001 means the annual number of cases of whooping cough in the UK is usually very low.

However, the Health Protection Agency (HPA) reported a surge in cases in 2011.  A total of 1,040 laboratory confirmed cases were reported in 2011, more than double the 421 cases reported in 2010.

Most of these cases are in teenagers and adults between 15-40 years of age.

It's important that all children have the whooping cough vaccine to prevent future outbreaks of the infection. See our vaccination planner to see if your child's vaccinations are up-to-date.

Whooping cough, sometimes referred to as pertussis, is an infection of the lining of the airways. It mainly affects the windpipe (trachea) and the two airways that branch off from it to the lungs (the bronchi).

The condition can be unpleasant. It's known as whooping cough because the main symptom is a hacking cough, which is often followed by a sharp intake of breath that sounds like a 'whoop'.

Other symptoms include a runny nose, raised temperature, severe coughing fits and vomiting after coughing.

See your GP if you notice any of the symptoms of whooping cough.

Whooping cough is highly infectious. The condition is caused by a bacterium called Bordetella pertussis, which can be passed from person to person through droplets in the air from coughing and sneezing. Read more about what causes whooping cough.

Who is at risk?

Whooping cough usually affects babies and young children, although teenagers and adults can develop the condition.

Whooping cough tends to be most severe in young babies. In rare cases, it can be fatal. Read more about whooping cough complications.


In the UK, children are vaccinated against whooping cough at two, three and four months of age, and again before starting school at about three years and four months of age. Read more about preventing whooping cough.

Although the number of cases of whooping cough has fallen dramatically since vaccination began, it is still possible for children to get the infection, so having the vaccination is vital.

The effects of the whooping cough vaccination can fade over time and it is possible to develop the condition during adulthood even if you were previously vaccinated. However, the symptoms are usually less serious than they are during childhood.

Treating whooping cough

Whooping cough can be treated successfully with antibiotics and most people make a full recovery.

Babies and young children are likely to be admitted to hospital as they are most at risk of severe complications. They will be treated in isolation to prevent the infection spreading and will be given antiobiotics into a vein through a drip (intravenously).

Read more about treating whooping cough.

Last reviewed: 01/07/2010

Next review due: 01/07/2012


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Comments are personal views. Any information they give has not been checked and may not be accurate.

Simon KyteTW said on 13 February 2012

I don t know why I thought my whooping cough test migt be a bit borderline because I had left the test a bit late. NHS test guidelines say "in the absence of a vaccination in the past 12 months an anti-pertussis toxin IgG reading of over 70 IU/mL is consistent with recent infection". Interesting... I aksed for my test result to be copied to me. Bearing in mind that this was the beginning of Week 7 and I had already had a course of antibios...
Bordetella pertussis anti-PT IgG: 337 IU/mL
Errm - that's not really borderline, especially since I have never been vaccinated, is it?

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Simon KyteTW said on 10 February 2012

I don't think folks quite understand what you mean when you can't breathe - they don't get that it is a physical impossibility, that all you can do is gasp air into your stomach and then wretch it out. It won't be too late to go to get a blood test. Took a trainee doc to persuade them to do one for me and the result was 2 weeks (thereby making it nearly 2 months since it started). Since the snow it has been worse again though because I commute by train.

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Simon KyteTW said on 10 February 2012

If you are being told it is too late for a swab test tell them the results from a bloodtest show up much later

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Simon KyteTW said on 10 February 2012

Finally a result after suffering since 23 Dec. Whooping Cough Pertussis. surprise surprise!
HPA will be in contact with more shortly.

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frensham said on 06 February 2012

My son 14 years old has had a cough for over a week then sleepless nights started with "episodes" so doctor said probably whooping cough!He was immunised and she said they "wear out" after a while!Now a week on and not much better am going back to get him tested ,but then what? The phrase there is a lot of coughs going round does not help.This is not a cough ,he can not breathe and has been sick various times now, this is his GCSE years so am aware he has been away from school over a week now . There must be something to ease this.As for being rare, my eldest son reported back that a couple of friends of his have had this in the last year ! Lucky for the school i looked this up and kept him away to ensure no one else came into contact.More should be posted at schools when some one has this.

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Smallroom said on 01 February 2012

I'm in the fourth week of a horrible cough with whooping. I had antibiotics, inhailer and a Chest x-ray in week two but it's not really changed. In the past couple of days I've woken up with a coughing and whooping attack which has left me fighting for breath for 2-3 minutes - really scary. Today I saw the doctor after a phone consultation where I actually had a coughing/whooping attack on the phone. He gave me a blood test for WC and antibiotics for it too but won't know for sure until results in three days. I am in agony from pulled muscles in every part of my rib cage and have a sharp stabbing pain in the right hand side of my throat despite my glands not being up. So fed up!

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clairissa said on 31 January 2012

There is a problem with whooping cough in my area and with adults. I am in the 3rd month of problems with a throat that keeps closing up and coughing whenever I yawn or laugh or talk for a long period. My doctors have just referred me to E.N.T so I don't know how long that is going to take! I have had 2 lots of antibiotics and asked for a blood test for WC but was just brushed over despite knowing I have been in close proximity to at least 5 people who have it. I wish I could just talk to another adult who has got it to swop notes as its a real worry ..Is it WP or not!!! I just want to know.

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Simon KyteTW said on 26 January 2012

This is exactly what happened to me. Is it too late for a blood test - I am in week 5 and have already had antibiotics.

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Simon KyteTW said on 26 January 2012

I am having exactly the same rubbish. As I understand it, it is to late to get a swab test. I have been looking into it with a private clinic but they want to charge £65+VAT just for answering that question. I spoke to one doctor and told him that i had been in contact with someone who had had whooping cough in the office (actually only her partner tested positive on the swab) and that i had never been immunised. He was helpful enough but the one I actually went to see wasn't convinced at all (and didn't seem to believe the fact that my mother had objected to all immunisations) but then he doesn't have to wake up going bright purple gasping for air every night! so a blood test could still work? i have had one wek of antibiotic treatment (and i am at least getting some rest at night). BTW tonight i heard someone else who sounds like they are going down with it on the train back from london.

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Lucibee said on 14 December 2011

There are currently pertussis epidemics in the US, Australia and NZ. I suspect there is also one in the UK, as many of my friends currently have persistent coughs that their GPs are refusing to diagnose as whooping cough. Lots of inappropriate antibiotics being given out and still the entrenched belief that this disease is rare in adults persists. It isn't, and we really need to get over that.

Me and my partner had it 5 years ago. We failed to get a diagnosis from our GP, so suffered for 3 months with retching cough and little sleep. One of the reasons that notifications are so low is that once a patient realises that it is whooping cough, they also find out that there is nothing they can do about it, so don't bother going back to their GP. Treatment is only beneficial in within the first 2-3 weeks, and as far as I know, there is no vaccine available in the UK for adults.

This is a public health issue, not least because of the productivity loss among working adults, but because of the risk of it being passed on to newborns and those with other conditions that put them at increased risk of severe/life-threatening sequelae.

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martybear said on 31 October 2011

after 6 visits to our GP, 3 visits to A & E and 3 visits to private hospitals over the span of 2 months,along with 2 chest xrays, steroid and antibiotic prescriptions, my husband was finally diagnosed with Whooping Cough. This was only after we demanded a blood test. Everyone we suggested Whooping Cough to said, "no way...too rare, not possible" etc. Imagine our surprise and disappointment when the test came back positive. Think of all the people he may have contaminated because medical professionals did not want to look at this as so. I can only thank the last GP we saw for having the insight to do a simple blood test to determine the cause of this debilitating cough. For him, we are grateful.

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NHS vaccinations for babies and children

Read about the NHS-recommended vaccinations for babies and children, plus key tips for parents