Whooping Cough and Pregnancy

What is Whooping Cough?

Whooping cough, (aka Pertussis) is a bacterial infection caused by bordatella pertussis. This infection causes inflammation to the upper airway including the trachea and larynx (windpipe and voicebox).

Who is at risk of whooping cough?

Whooping cough is an infection that is highly contagious to anyone who does not have prior immunity. Outbreaks tend to occur quite regularly in Australia. The condition affects people in all ages but is most dangerous in babies and toddlers.

What happens if I get whooping cough?

When a person contracts the infection, the bacteria releases a toxin that causes a chronic inflammation of the upper airway. The toxin results in severe prolonged spasms of coughing during which there is gasping for breath: creating a distinct “whooping” sound. While antibiotics kill the bacteria the inflammation from the toxin takes several months to resolve. Another slang name for the condition is “the 100 day cough”. Unfortunately, in infants and toddlers the severity of the illness is such that normal oxygenation can be severely impaired, endangering the baby.

How do I avoid myself and my baby getting whooping cough?

You get immunised. For a long time there has been a simple, safe and effective vaccine available for whooping cough. The vaccine also contains a booster for tetanus. The vaccine is given routinely in pregnancy after 20 weeks, and in infancy at 2,4,6, and 18 months of age and again at 5 years of age. Partners and close family members who have not been vaccinated in the last 5 years should attend their GP for a booster too.

Why vaccinate in pregnancy?

A simple injection after 20 weeks is the only effective way to minimise risk of your baby being exposed to whooping cough. It will also immunise you for a minimum of 5 years. Once you start producing antibodies to the bacteria, these maternal antibodies enter the babies circulation. Thus the baby is born with circulating antibodies to Pertussis, this is also called Passive Immunisation. The vaccine is safe to administer in the second half of pregnancy and is available free to you and your partner.

Does breastfeeding help?

Yes, if you are able to establish breastfeeding there will be further passage of antibodies to your baby in your breast milk.

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Author: Dr Peter England, Obstetrician and Gynaecologist.
Read more about Dr Peter England

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