Whooping cough – information for pregnant women

There is a lot of whooping cough around at the moment and babies who are too young to start their routine immunisations are at greatest risk.

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.

Immunisation is recommended as soon as possible from week 16 of your pregnancy.  The ideal time is between weeks 16 and 32 but the sooner you get the vaccine the better. If you are 16 weeks pregnant or more, talk to your midwife, practice nurse or GP and make an appointment to get immunised as soon as possible.

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.

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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 went down to 504 in 2014, but it increased again in 2015 to 928 and 1032 in 2016.

The cause of this increase is being investigated by government scientists and other experts. In the meantime, the important thing is to protect young babies, who are the most likely to suffer badly if they catch the disease. 

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

There is no evidence that immunising pregnant women with this type of vaccine can cause any harm. The whooping cough vaccine is not a live vaccine so it can’t cause whooping cough in women who have the immunisation, or their babies. There is no evidence of harm from immunising pregnant women with this type of vaccine. A recent study in the UK (of nearly 18,000 pregnant women) found no safety concerns related to getting immunised against whooping cough when pregnant. Studies from the US of immunising pregnant women against whooping cough (with a similar type of vaccine to the one used in Scotland) have also found no evidence of risk to pregnant women. 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. 

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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.

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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 immunisations at 2, 3 and 4 months of age as part of their routine immunisations. They will then be offered a fourth immunisation at around 3 years and 4 months of age. Please see the Childhood Routine Immunisation Programme for more information.  

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When will I get the immunisation?

Immunisation is recommended as soon as possible from week 16 of your pregnancy. The ideal time to have the vaccine is between weeks 16 and 32, but the sooner you get the vaccine the better. This means there is more time for your body to make antibodies and for these to be passed to your unborn baby. You may still have the vaccine after you are 32 weeks pregnant, but it will not offer your baby the same level of protection.

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

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.

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Is there another way to protect my baby from whooping cough?

There is no other way to protect your baby from whooping cough. More young babies have died recently before they are old enough to have their first whooping cough immunisation. Their mother’s protection (from either having whooping cough themselves or being immunised when they were young) has now worn off. 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.

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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 four 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.

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I’m expecting twins – what should I do?

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

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

You will be offered the immunisation when you reach week 16 of any pregnancy. Make an appointment to get immunised every time you are pregnant.

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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.

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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.

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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 (October to March), then you should have the flu vaccine as early as you can during pregnancy. 

If you are over 16 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.

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What should I do now?

If you are 16 weeks pregnant or more, please speak to your midwife to find out more or make an appointment for your whooping cough immunisation with your GP practice.

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What about other infections during pregnancy? 

You must let your midwife, GP or obstetrician know immediately if you have a rash illness or have any contact with another person with a rash at any time during your pregnancy.

Please avoid any antenatal clinic, maternity setting or other pregnant women until you have been assessed. Any illness where you have a fever and a rash may be due to you having an infectious disease which could harm your unborn baby. You may be offered tests to find out if you have been infected.

The health professional that assesses you will need to know:

  • how many weeks pregnant you are
  • when the contact with someone with a rash illness was
  • the date that you first developed or had contact with someone with a rash 
  • a description of the rash (is it a raised, bumpy rash or is it blisters filled with fluid?)
  • what infections you have had in the past, for example chicken pox, measles
  • what immunisations you have previously had

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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 20 October 2017

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