Whooping cough vaccine before visiting baby: should you?

Your guide to protecting your baby

Content Editor / March 24 2019

Should you get the whooping cough vaccine before visiting baby?
Yes. According to the NSW Health Department, it is important that those who will be closest to a baby in the first weeks of life receive a whooping cough vaccine. This includes the parents, siblings and any visitors who have not received the whooping cough vaccine in the last 10 years. Childcare workers are also obligated to be vaccinated against the whooping cough virus.

The rise of whooping cough in Australia
Pertussis, commonly known as ‘whooping cough’, is a disease of the respiratory tract caused by the bacterium Bordetella pertussis. It is highly infectious in unvaccinated people. In Australia, pertussis epidemics usually occur every 3–4 years.

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Why is whooping cough so dangerous for babies?
Whooping cough is a highly infectious bacterial disease that causes severe bouts of coughing. In adults, the symptoms can be mild, but if the infection is spread to a baby who is not yet vaccinated, it can be life-threatening.

According to the Better Health Channel, one in every 200 babies who contract whooping cough will die. In Australia, there are also more than 200 hospitalisations every year related to pertussis in infants younger than six months of age.

Babies under six months are too young to be fully immunized against whooping cough. Older children and adults who have not received pertussis vaccination are at risk of infection, and can spread the disease to infants.

How whooping cough is spread and the incubation period
Whooping cough is spread when an infected person coughs or sneezes, and is highly infectious. The time from infection to appearance of symptoms (whooping cough incubation period) is between six and 20 days. 

A person is infectious for the first 21 days of their cough or until they have had five days of a 10-day course of antibiotics. In countries where immunisation rates are high, the risk of catching whooping cough is low.

Most reports of whooping cough currently occur in adults over 20 years of age, according to the Better Health Channel. Recent research has shown that family members, household contacts and carers are the main source of whooping cough infection in babies.

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Where to get a whooping cough injection?
Your GP or local health centre can provide the whooping cough vaccine. In some states and territories, including NSW, ACT, Queensland and Victoria, pharmacists can also administer the whooping cough vaccine.

What are the risks if you don't get the whooping cough vaccine?
If you don’t get the whooping cough vaccine and come in contact with a young baby, then the child runs the risk of contracting the disease, and potentially being hospitalized or even dying. Whooping cough initially can appear similar to the common cold, with a runny nose, watery eyes and a low-grade fever, however over the next three to seven days sufferers develop a dry cough which is usually accompanied by a sharp inhalation, which is where the name ‘whooping cough’ comes from. The violent coughing has also been known to cause vomiting, general tiredness and can even break ribs.

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Are there any side effects of the vaccine?
Pertussis-containing vaccines are safe and are generally well tolerated by adults when given as a booster dose. There may be a small chance of getting a fever as a result, which is the case with most vaccines.

According to the Australian Government’s Immunisation Handbook, adolescents or adults obtaining the vaccine may have a mild, temporary pain at the injection site, but generally should not experience a fever or any other side effects. Limb swelling reactions after pertussis-containing booster doses were reported in 1% of adolescent and adult clinical trial participants.

Some adults have a history of adverse events after receiving a whole-cell pertussis–containing vaccine in childhood. These adults can almost always receive acellular pertussis–containing vaccines, which do not have the same risk of adverse events. Visit here to find out more about potential side effects.

Nicola Conville has worked as a journalist and editor for more than 20 years across a wide range of print and online publications. Her areas of expertise are parenting, health and travel. She has two children; Lucy, age eight, and Nathan, age five.