Whooping cough infections are on the rise in England, new data from the UK’s Health Security Agency (UKHSA) has shown.

But what is whooping cough, what’s causing the increase in infections and is there a vaccine?

FactCheck takes a look.

What is whooping cough and what are the symptoms?

Whooping cough is a bacterial infection that spreads very easily and affects the lungs and breathing tubes.

The first signs of whooping cough can be similar to a cold, with a runny nose and sore throat.

But the NHS explains that after a week you:

  • – will get coughing bouts that last for a few minutes and are worse at night
    – may make a “whoop” sound – which is a gasp for breath between coughs (young babies and some adults may not make a “whoop” sound)
    – may have difficulty breathing after a coughing bout and may turn blue or grey (young infants)
    – may bring up a thick mucus, which can make you vomit
    – may become very red in the face (this is more common in adults)

The cough may also last for several weeks and months, which is why it’s sometimes called the “100-day cough”.

What is the treatment and is there a vaccine?

The treatment for whooping cough depends on your age and how long you’ve had the infection, but hospital treatment is usually needed if you have a severe whooping cough, or if a baby is under six months old and has whooping cough.

If the condition is diagnosed within three weeks of the infection, you’ll be given antibiotics to help stop it spreading to others (this may not reduce symptoms), but if you’ve had it for more than three weeks, you’re no longer contagious and do not need antibiotics.

There’s an NHS-provided vaccine that protects babies and children from getting whooping cough and is routinely given as part of the 6-in-1 vaccine for babies at eight, 12 and 16 weeks, and the 4-in-1 pre-school booster which is given to children aged three years four months.

If you’re pregnant, the NHS recommends you should have the whooping cough vaccine, ideally between 16 and 32 weeks.

Steve Russell, national director for vaccinations and screening at NHS England, said: “With whooping cough on the rise, it is important that families come forward to get the protection they need.

“If you are pregnant and have not been vaccinated yet, or your child is not up-to-date with whooping cough or other routine vaccinations, please contact your GP as soon as possible, and if you or your child have symptoms ask for an urgent GP appointment or get help from NHS 111.”

Why are whooping cough infections on the rise?

New data published by UKHSA shows there has been an increase in whooping cough cases at the start of this year, with 553 confirmed in England in January, compared with 858 cases for the whole 2023.

The UKHSA said the increase in infections across England is “occurring after a prolonged period of low case numbers due to restrictions and reduced social mixing patterns during the Covid-19 pandemic”.

And it says the current increase is also “coming at a time when there has been a steady decline in uptake of the vaccine in pregnant women and in children”.

Martin Michaelis, professor of molecular medicine at the University of Kent, told FactCheck that it’s also known “that there are peaks of whooping cough every few years”, with the last peak in 2016, when 5,949 cases were recorded.

He adds: “Decreasing numbers of vaccinations put in particular very small children at an unnecessary risk from whooping cough. Hence, all parents should make sure that their children are vaccinated.”

(Image credit: Oleksandr Latkun/imageBROKER/Shutterstock)