Is pertussis whooping cough?

Editorial Team

Editorial Team

July 8th, 2024

Editorial Team

‘Yes, pertussis is commonly known as whooping cough because of the ‘whoop’ sound infants making when breathing in after a coughing spasm’

Pertussis (whooping cough) is a highly contagious disease caused by a bacterium – Bordetella pertussis. The disease is spreading in Europe, but can be prevented through vaccination.

Read: 1,000% increase in pertussis cases in Europe

Symptoms of pertussis include:

  • Early stages: Mild, cold-like symptoms, such as a runny nose, sneezing, mild cough, and fever.
  • After 1-2 weeks: severe coughing fits, sometimes followed by a ‘whoop’ sound as the child breaths in. This is where the term ‘whooping cough’ originates.
  • Weeks to months: coughing spasms can occur over several months. In some children, coughing is so severe that it causes vomiting and rib fractures.
  • Severe cases: some people suffer secondary respiratory infections which can cause pneumonia. This may require hospitalisation and carries the risk of death.
  • Infants at risk: children in Europe die of pertussis every year. Those at most danger are unvaccinated infants.

Read: Measles & pertussis outbreaks: ‘We must protect our infants’

Pertussis is spread by coughing or sneezing. The most effective way to prevent the disease is by vaccinating infants.

Vaccination is also highly recommended for pregnant women. They can pass on antibodies through the placenta, providing babies with some natural protection in their early months. Ask your healthcare professional for advice.

Since the introduction of pertussis vaccines around the world, the number of reported cases has fallen everywhere.

Graph showing the number of reported cases of pertussis has fallen everywhere since the introduction of pertussis vaccines.

In Europe, the total number of cases has been close to zero in recent years. However, the latest data show 60,000 cases between 2023 and April 2024.

Belgium, Croatia, Denmark, Spain, Sweden and Norway have reported pertussis outbreaks over the past year, with particularly high cases seen in the Netherlands and the Czech Republic. Czech authorities recorded the highest number of cases since the 1960s.

When is your child due their pertussis vaccine? Check the ECDC Vaccine Scheduler