What is Pertussis/Whooping cough? | Western Cape Government

What is Pertussis/Whooping cough?

What is Whooping Cough?

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) Pertussis, commonly known as whooping cough, is a highly contagious disease of the respiratory tract caused by Bordetella pertussis, which is a bacterium that lives in the mouth, nose, and throat. Many children who contract pertussis have coughing spells that last 4 to 8 weeks. WHO estimates that in 2008 global vaccination against pertussis prevented approximately 687 000 deaths.

The National Institute of Communicable Diseases (NICD) reported an increase in confirmed cases of whooping cough among children under the age of 5 from the Western Cape, Gauteng, Mpumalanga, North West and Kwazulu-Natal. An increase which was limited to the Western Cape sites was observed between October 2017 and January 2018. Of the 37 whooping cough cases identified between May and July 2018, 20 or 54% were under the age of 3 months.

Who can get it? Doctor examining a 6 month old baby boy with stethoscope.

People who aren't immune to the bacterium through vaccination or have had it before, can get whooping cough at any age. It can however, be deadly for infants and young children. It can also affect those who have a weak immune system and those with a chronic lung disease.


Symptoms generally appear 7-10 days after infection and this is called the incubation period. Whooping cough lasts about 6 weeks and the symptoms come in 3 stages. Untreated patients may be contagious for 3 weeks or more following onset of the cough. The symptoms include:

Stage 1

  • Runny nose
  • Teary eyes
  • Congestion
  • Hacking night cough

Stage 2

  • Rapid, wet (stringy mucus) cough after day 10
  • Rapid inhalation ending with a high-pitched "whoop" sound

Stage 3

  • Decreasing symptoms
  • Cough may still be present


According to healthline, many infants and some young children will need to be hospitalized during treatment, for observation and respiratory support. Some may need intravenous (IV) fluids for dehydration if symptoms prevent them from drinking enough fluids.

Since whooping cough is a bacterial infection, antibiotics are the effective form of treatment. They’re most effective in the early stages of whooping cough. They can also be used in the late stages of the infection to prevent it from spreading to others.

While antibiotics can help treat the infection, they don’t prevent or treat the cough itself.

However, cough medicines aren’t recommended — they have no effect on whooping cough symptoms and may carry harmful side effects for infants and small children.

How to prevent it? Doctor vaccinating young pregnant woman

WHO suggests that, the vaccination of health care workers should be prioritized, especially those with direct contact with pregnant mothers and infants. Vaccination of pregnant women is likely to be the most cost-effective additional strategy for preventing the disease in infants too young to be vaccinated and it also appears to be more effective and favourable.

The National Department of Health’s “Road to Health” initiative stems from the Road to Health booklet that is given to parents when a baby is born. According to Road to Health, you will need to take your child to be immunised against whooping cough at the following developmental stages:

  • 6 weeks
  • 10 weeks
  • 14 weeks

Booster shot at:  

  • 18 months

When to see a doctor?

You should go to your doctor or nearest clinic immediately when:

  • You or your child has been in contact with someone who has whooping cough, even if you both have been vaccinated.
  • You and/or your child have an unfamiliar cough that doesn’t want to go away.
  • You suspect that your or your child’s symptoms might be whooping cough.
The content on this page was last updated on 26 October 2018