Whooping cough Q&A: What is the disease, and what should I do if my child has it?

Whooping cough is a highly infectious bacterial disease involving the lungs and airways

Whooping cough, more formally known as pertussis, is on the rise in Ireland and around the world. The Health Protection Surveillance Centre has reported 77 cases of the disease since the start of the year. This compares to 18 during the whole of 2023.

What is whooping cough?

Whooping cough is a highly infectious bacterial disease involving the lungs and airways. Infants under six months, unimmunised or partially immunised, face the highest risk of severe disease outcomes.

What are the symptoms?


Dr Scott Walkin, a general practitioner in Mayo and the Irish College of General Practitioner/HSE clinical lead for antimicrobial resistance and infection control, said whooping cough typically begins with “cold-like symptoms”. These include a runny nose, red and watery eyes, a sore throat and raised temperature.

“Between one and two weeks later the cough becomes quite severe. The name whooping cough actually comes from the sound. For some people, though not all people, they are coughing, coughing, coughing and then as they breathe in rapidly it makes a “whoop” sound,” he said.

Dr Walkin said the cough can bring up a thick mucus, which is sometimes followed by vomiting.

And babies are particularly affected?

Yes. The cough may be harder to notice in young babies, but they can have short periods when they stop breathing. This is why the HSE says it is important to get medical help urgently if your child has symptoms and is less than 12 months old. “The group of people most at risk are young babies under six months. The younger they are, the higher the risk,” Dr Walkin added.

Should I immediately go to a doctor if I think my child has whooping cough?

According to Dr Walkin, there is “very little” that can be done to treat whooping cough as “antibiotics have no effects on treating the symptoms”.

If the child is less than 12 months old, has a cough that is getting worse and has a cough that has lasted longer than three weeks HSE guidance, published on its website, states parents should seek urgent help from their GP.

According to the guidance, parents should go to the nearest emergency department if the child is having a lot of trouble with breathing, for example long periods of breathlessness or choking, or periods where breathing stops; if their skin or lips turn a dark or blue colour; if they have a seizure or a fit; or if they develop a pain in their chest, as this could be a sign of pneumonia.

What treatments are there?

As Dr Walkin said there are very few treatments available, but advised on keeping sick people at home if possible unless they obviously require medical attention as the disease is highly infectious.

“If a child or person with whooping cough has a fever or is feeling achey or has sore ears they can be treated with Calpol or Nurofen (paracetamol or ibuprofen),” he said. “The evidence for use of cough syrup in children under six is very weak.”

How can I protect my child against whooping cough?

“The most important and best way to manage whooping cough is to prevent it. That means vaccination,” Dr Walkin said. “They are given at two months, four months and six months. Then there is a booster in junior infants, and a booster in first year [of secondary school]. It is important to get each of those vaccines on time, every time.”

Children under two months old are not eligible for vaccination, but are still at risk from the disease. “The clever way to protect these children is for a pregnant lady to be vaccinated during pregnancy, because her body will develop antibodies that cross the placenta into the baby. This should be done in each pregnancy,” he added.

Can it be fatal?

In the UK there have been five infant deaths in the first three months of the year related to whooping cough, according to data from UK Health Security Agency. However, Dr Walkin said this is “very rare” and would not be a common outcome. He added that while the number of cases have increased in Ireland the “number of cases is relatively low”.

Shauna Bowers

Shauna Bowers

Shauna Bowers is Health Correspondent of The Irish Times