Pertussis – Whooping Cough Immunisation

When do I need to get whooping cough immunisation?

If you have a newborn baby, or you’re going to be in close contact with one (maybe your sister or best friend is pregnant) then you might wonder about whether you need to get a whooping cough vaccination.

No time? Here’s the short version

Updating immunisations every 10 years is a good plan for everyone. For those who work or live with babies younger than 6 months of age, immunisation for whooping cough every 4 or 5 years is best. If there is an outbreak in your neighbourhood, your doctor could recommend even more frequent vaccinations if you are at risk of spreading whooping cough to babies or the elderly. And you don’t need to be sick yourself to spread the disease. You could have no symptoms, but still carry the disease to someone vulnerable. Regular immunisations are important! (for more information go to http://www.immunise.health.gov.au)

Whooping Cough Immunisation for Pregnant Women

If you are pregnant, there is no 10 years or 5 years. In your last trimester it is very important to get your whooping cough (pertussis) immunisation. By doing this, you transfer some of the immunity that you develop to your unborn baby, which can keep them safe from whooping cough between when they’re born and when their vaccines take effect. You need to update your immunisation for whooping cough every time that you’re pregnant.

Learn more

The National Immunisations Handbook recommends that we all get freshly immunised every 10 years for all the common diseases that there are vaccines available for. Whooping cough, which health professionals will call pertussis, is one that you might need to get a shot for even more frequently. Some of us will see our immunity wane as little as 4 or 5 years after a vaccination.

If you’re going to be in contact with a new baby, getting your whooping cough immunisation is extra important. Babies are born without any resistance to diseases so getting whooping cough can put them at serious risk of hospitalisation or even death. You might remember having whooping cough in primary school and it was not a big deal, but for babies it’s a very big deal.

If you work or live with high risk groups, such as young infants, you are eligible for a booster dose every 4-5 years. Getting this done is especially important, if you are too old to have received the three-dose immunisation program when you were small.

That doesn’t describe me, do I still need it?
If you’re going to be a close contact caregiver, such as dads or partner, and you have not gotten a whooping cough vaccine in the last 4 or 5 years, it’s important that you make time to get your shot at least 2 weeks before any contact with the newborn, wherever possible.

New babies will get lots of vaccines in their first few months of life, but they don’t take effect straight away. This makes something called cocooning really useful. Cocooning means that everyone who is going to be in close contact with the baby has their vaccines updated. Yes, that means grandma and grandad, best friends, nieces and nephews, aunties and uncles – all the people who are going to spend time with your baby.

By having all the adults around the baby immunised against common diseases, this protects your baby while baby’s immunisations are taking effect during the first 6 months. Cocooning needs all the adults who come into regular contact with your baby to update their immunisations, especially if they have not had immunisations within the past 10 years.

There’s been a disease outbreak in my community

We’ve all read articles about a whooping cough outbreak in a neighbourhood or a school near us. If you have a new baby, hearing about something like that can be very scary. If something like that happens in your neighbourhood, the local doctors will be able to provide immunisations to those who may be at risk of contracting and carrying the infectious disease because of their contact with a newborn baby.

Some other Facts about Whooping Cough (Pertussis) immunity

I had whooping cough when I was younger, am I immune?
Even if you have had pertussis, you will NOT be automatically immune to future exposure. Being infected does not create automatic immunity and you need to get your immunisation updated.

I have been exposed to Whooping Cough in the family, what do I do?

Speak with your doctor as soon as you know you have been exposed. Your doctor might prescribe antibiotics, which can reduce the severity of pertussis if you start them early after exposure to the disease. After the recommended course of antibiotics you might still have some symptoms, but you are unlikely to be infections. For safety, cancel any visits to newborn babies in this time – you’re too risky.

My baby has had her first injection, is she immune now?

No. Complete immunity happens over time and modern whooping cough vaccines come in three doses – the first at 6-8 weeks. Your baby won’t have complete immunity until the third dose of the vaccine at 6 months of age.

How do I know if my child has had their full three doses?

The Australian Childhood Immunisation Register has records of immunisations. Phone 1800 653 809.

My baby doesn’t have that awful whoop sound when she coughs, so can she have whooping cough?

Yes. Babies don’t always present with the whooping noise when they breathe in, yet still test positive for whooping cough. Always check with your doctor if a cough persists and if it comes in bouts of coughing that keep happening until the baby or adult is out of breath.

Will immunisation prevent my child getting whooping cough?

No, but if your child does contract the bacteria, the illness will be more mild and the risk of death is significantly less.

Is there a treatment?

For babies who get whooping cough and for anyone directly exposed to the bacteria (this means you’ve spent time with someone who’s been diagnosed with whooping cough), antibiotics are recommended. If your baby gets sick with whooping cough they may need to go to hospital because the cough is so severe. If you are concerned about your baby’s cough, see a doctor as soon as you can.

Babies can develop a temperature after immunisations. Is there a risk of febrile convulsions?

There are only very infrequent reports of fever-related convulsions after the immunisations. Even without vaccinations, babies who are younger than 6 months are less likely to have a convulsion that an older child anyway.

Why is there such a fuss about a cough anyway?

Whooping cough is highly contagious and very risky for babies, elderly people and people with weakened immune systems. The cough that comes with whooping cough is not only spreading the disease far and wide via all the droplets that coughs distribute, it can be so severe that during coughing bouts, a sick baby’s brain can be starved of oxygen. The coughing does not stop for long enough for the sick baby to breathe. The fuss is justified.

Whooping Cough: indicators

It often starts with cold symptoms:

  • sneezing
  • congestion
  • runny eyes
  • a mild temperature.

These symptoms all happen before you even hear a cough. And babies don’t always develop the classic ‘whooping’ cough that gives this disease its name.

This makes it very difficult to tell what’s a simple cold, and what’s the early, infectious stages of whooping cough. That is what makes it so important to ensure that you’re immunised in the last trimester of your pregnancy, and all the other adults who are going to spend time with your baby get their immunisations updated too.

Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing. ATAGI Bulletin 41st Meeting: 15-16 October 2009. In. Canberra; 2009.
Australian Technical Advisory Group on Immunisation Australian Government Department of Health and Ageing. ATAGI Bulletin 44th Meeting: 24-25 February 2011. In. Canberra; 2011.
Wendelboe AM, Van Rie A, Salmaso S, Englund JA. Duration of immunity against pertussis after natural infection or vaccination. Pediatr Infect Dis J 2005;24(5 Suppl):S58-S61.

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