Whooping cough – information for pregnant women

In the last few months, whooping cough has been rising sharply with over 16 times as many cases up to the middle of September 2012 compared with the same time in 2011.


You can help protect your unborn baby from getting whooping cough in his or her first weeks of life by having the whooping cough vaccine while you are pregnant – even if you’ve been immunised before or have had whooping cough yourself.

Whooping cough is a serious disease that can lead to pneumonia and permanent brain damage, as well as cause death. A number of babies have died in the UK because of the current outbreak

Young babies are particularly at risk because they are vulnerable until they can be immunised against whooping cough from 2 months of age.

Questions and answers


What is whooping cough?

Whooping cough (also known as pertussis) causes long bouts of coughing and choking, making it hard to breathe. The ‘whoop’ noise is caused by gasping for breath after each bout of coughing. But not all cases will make the ‘whooping’ sound, which can make it difficult to recognise the disease.

Whooping cough commonly lasts for 2 to 3 months. Whooping cough is easily spread by breathing in tiny droplets that are released into the air by other people’s coughs and sneezes. Babies under one year of age are most at risk from whooping cough. For these babies, the disease is very serious and can lead to pneumonia and permanent brain damage. Babies have already died in the UK because of this current outbreak.


Why are we seeing more outbreaks?

In 2012, there was an outbreak of whooping cough in Scotland (as well as the rest of the UK). There were 1,926 cases of whooping cough in Scotland in 2012. The number of cases in 2013 has stayed at a higher level than has been seen in Scotland over the past ten years. By September 2013 there were 1,003 cases of whooping cough in Scotland - this is very similar to the 999 cases that were reported over the same length of time in 2012. 

The cause of this increase is being investigated by experts. In the meantime, the important thing is to protect young babies, who are the most likely to suffer if they catch the disease. We can do this by immunising women beginning when they are 28 weeks pregnant, with the ideal time being between weeks 28 and 32. Make an appointment to get immunised every time you are pregnant so that each baby gets the same protection from you against whooping cough.


Are there any risks to me or my baby if I’m immunised while I’m pregnant?

The whooping cough vaccine is not a live vaccine so it can’t cause whooping cough in those who have the immunisation, or their babies. There is no evidence of harm from immunising pregnant women with this type of vaccine. It’s much safer for you to have the vaccine than to risk your newborn baby catching whooping cough.

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What is in the vaccine?

You will be given a combined vaccine that protects against four different diseases – whooping cough (pertussis), diphtheria, tetanus and polio – as there is currently no single, pertussis-only vaccine available.

Although the vaccine isn’t currently licensed for use in pregnant women, there’s no evidence that there’s a risk of harm to you or your baby. Studies from the US of immunising pregnant women against whooping cough (with a similar type of vaccine to the one used in Scotland) have found no evidence of risk to pregnant women.


Are there any side effects from being immunised while pregnant?

You may have some mild side effects from the immunisation, such as redness or tenderness where the vaccine was given (this will be an injection in the upper arm). Serious side effects are extremely rare, especially in adults.

Find out more about the possible side effects from immunisation.


How does getting immunised during pregnancy protect my baby?

The immunity you get from the vaccine will be passed to your baby across the placenta. Getting immunised during pregnancy will help protect the baby in the first few vulnerable weeks of life, until he or she is old enough to have the routine immunisation at 2 months of age.

Babies are offered whooping cough vaccinations at 2, 3 and 4 months of age as part of their routine immunisations.

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How late in pregnancy can I have the vaccine?

Immunisation is recommended from weeks 28 to 38, with the ideal time being between weeks 28 and 32. This provides time for the mother’s body to make antibodies and for these to pass across the placenta to the unborn baby.

If immunisation is given after 38 weeks there may not be enough time for the antibodies to be produced and passed to the unborn baby, which means the baby won’t have protection in the first weeks of life.


Will the immunisation definitely mean my baby won’t get whooping cough?

Because whooping cough is circulating so widely now, your baby will be at greater risk of catching whooping cough. Although no vaccine guarantees 100% protection, this is likely to be the most effective way to protect your baby from whooping cough in his or her first weeks of life.

Early signs show that vaccinating pregnant women in Scotland is very effective at reducing the number of young babies getting whooping cough. Remember that the immunity they receive from you will wear off, so make sure you bring your baby for their routine immunisations at 2 months of age when they will receive their first dose of the whooping cough vaccine.


Is there an alternative way to protect my baby from whooping cough?

More young babies have died recently before they are old enough to have their first whooping cough immunisation.

Having the immunisation during pregnancy provides antibodies that will be passed to the baby so he or she has some protection in the first few weeks of life when whooping cough is most serious.


How long will my immunisation protect my baby from whooping cough?

The immunity your newborn baby gets from your vaccination will help protect them through the very early weeks of life. Your baby will still need the full course of three whooping cough immunisations to protect them as they grow up.

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Why can’t my baby be immunised as soon as they are born?

A newborn baby is not ready to deal with this vaccine until two months of age, when they will receive the first of their immunisations to get full protection.


I’m expecting twins – what should I do?

One immunisation will help protect all your babies, no matter how many you are expecting.


What if I get pregnant again soon after the birth of my baby?

You will be offered the immunisation when you reach week 28 of any pregnancy. Make an appointment to get immunised every time you are pregnant.


I have a newborn baby but was not immunised when pregnant – can I have the vaccine now?

Women who miss out on the immunisation during pregnancy may be offered the vaccine if they have never previously been immunised against whooping cough, up to when their child receives their first vaccination. You will only need one dose.

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I am going to breastfeed. Won’t that protect my baby?

Unfortunately, not enough protection against whooping cough is passed in the breast milk to protect your baby. Having the vaccine does increase your antibodies that are passed to your baby.


I have other young children – do they need to be immunised too?

If you have other young children it is important to make sure that they are up to date with their immunisations. This will help these children avoid becoming infected with whooping cough and passing this on to your new baby.


I have heard that I should have the flu vaccine when I am pregnant. Can I have both vaccines? Should I have them together?

If you are pregnant during the flu season, then you should have the flu vaccine as early as you can during pregnancy.

If you are over 28 weeks pregnant and you still haven’t had the flu vaccine, then you can and should have both vaccines. You can have them at the same time or separately - the vaccines don’t interfere with each other if given together.


What should I do now?

If you are in week 28 of your pregnancy or beyond, please speak to your midwife to find out more or make an appointment for your whooping cough immunisation with your GP practice.


Where can I get more information?

For more information, talk to your midwife, practice nurse or GP, or call the NHS inform helpline is open every day 8am - 10pm on 0800 22 44 88 (textphone 18001 0800 22 44 88).

The helpline also provides an interpreting service. You can report suspected side effects of vaccines and medicines through the Yellow Card Scheme. This can be done online by visiting www.yellowcard.gov.uk or by calling the Yellow Card hotline on 0808 100 3352 (available Monday to Friday – 10 am to 2 pm).

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Last reviewed on 29 April 2014

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