About pertussis (whooping cough)

Pertussis, or whooping cough, is an acute bacterial infection of the respiratory tract caused by the bacteria Bordetella pertussis.

Unvaccinated children are most at risk of severe disease and death.

Pertussis is spread through airborne and respiratory droplets, with people often developing symptoms between 4 to 21 days after exposure.

Symptoms of pertussis typically present in the following stages:

  • the catarrhal stage – symptoms include a runny nose, fever and development of a cough. This stage often lasts one to two weeks.
  • the paroxysmal stage – symptoms include a paroxysmal ‘whooping’ cough, which may be accompanied with episodes of vomiting and whooping after fits. Infants may have periods of apnoea associated with these fits. This stage may last for two to three months.

Complications of pertussis disease include:

  • bronchopneumonia
  • dehydration and weight loss secondary to vomiting
  • seizures and encephalitis
  • cerebral hypoxia leading to long-term brain damage

More information on pertussis and whooping cough can be found on NHS inform (external website).

Last updated: 06 October 2022