Overview

The whooping cough vaccine's offered to pregnant women to help protect their baby against whooping cough (also known as pertussis).

That’s because there's 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're pregnant – even if you’ve been immunised before or have had whooping cough yourself.

Immunisation's recommended as soon as possible from week 16 of your pregnancy. Talk to your midwife, practice nurse or GP and make an appointment to get immunised as soon as possible.

What's whooping cough?

Whooping cough (also known as pertussis):

  • causes long bouts of coughing and choking, making it hard to breathe
  • may last up to 10 weeks
  • is easily spread by breathing in tiny droplets that are released into the air by other people’s coughs and sneezes

The ‘whoop’ noise is caused by gasping for breath after each bout of coughing. Not all cases will make the ‘whooping’ sound, which can make it difficult to recognise the disease.

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 went down to 504 in 2014, but it increased again to 958 in 2015 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.

More about whooping cough

Who's eligible for the vaccine?

All pregnant women from week 16 of their pregnancy are eligible for the whooping cough vaccine. The ideal time to have the vaccine's between weeks 16 and 32, but the sooner you get the vaccine the better. This means there's 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're 32 weeks pregnant, but it won't offer your baby the same level of protection.

What about other infections during pregnancy?

You'll be offered a blood test for infections that can affect you and your baby, such as:

  • hepatitis B
  • syphilis
  • HIV

We screen for these conditions because simple treatments can reduce the risks to you and your baby.

More on screening during pregnancy

The vaccine

As there's currently no single whooping cough-only vaccine available, you'll be given a combined vaccine that protects against 4 different diseases:

  • whooping cough (pertussis)
  • diphtheria
  • tetanus
  • polio

What vaccine's used?

The Infanrix hexa, Powder and suspension for suspension for injection is routinely used in Scotland.

How effective is the vaccine?

This is a very effective way to help protect your unborn baby from whooping cough until they're old enough to have their own vaccine.

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 8 weeks of age.

Babies are offered whooping cough immunisations at 2, 3 and 4 months of age as part of their routine immunisations. They'll then be offered a fourth immunisation through the 4-in-1 vaccine at around 3 years and 4 months of age.

More information on vaccines for your baby

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

No vaccine guarantees 100% protection, but this is the most effective way to help protect your baby from whooping cough in their first weeks of life.

Evidence shows that immunising pregnant women in Scotland's 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 8 weeks of age when they'll receive their first dose of the whooping cough vaccine.

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 4 whooping cough immunisations to protect them as they grow up.

I’m expecting twins. What should I do?

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

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

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

I have a newborn baby but wasn't 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've never previously been immunised against whooping cough, up to when their child receives their first vaccination.

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

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

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

There's no evidence that immunising pregnant women with this type of vaccine can cause any harm.

It’s much safer for you to have the vaccine than to risk your newborn catching whooping cough.

The whooping cough vaccine isn't a live vaccine so it can’t cause whooping cough in women who have the immunisation, or their babies. 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.

How do we know the vaccine's safe?

All medicines (including vaccines) are tested for safety and effectiveness by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Agency (MHRA). The vaccine meets the high safety standards required for it to be used in the UK and other European countries. The vaccine has been given to millions of people worldwide.

Once they're in use, the safety of vaccines continues to be monitored by the MHRA.

Where and when to get it

You'll get the vaccine at your GP practice.

When will I be immunised?

Immunisation's 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's 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're 32 weeks pregnant, but it won't offer your baby the same level of protection.

Can I have this vaccine at the same time as the flu vaccine?

If you're pregnant during the flu season (October to March), then you should have the flu vaccine as early as you can during pregnancy.

If you're 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.

More about the flu vaccine for pregnant women

After the vaccine

After having the vaccine there may be side effects, but these are usually mild.

Side effects

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.

Where can I report suspected side effects?

You can report suspected side effects of vaccines and medicines through the Yellow Card Scheme.

This can be done by:

  • visiting the Yellow Card Scheme website
  • phoning the free Yellow Card hotline on 0808 100 3352 (available Monday to Friday, 10.00am to 2.00pm)

Further information

If you’re unsure about anything, or have any questions about the whooping cough vaccine, phone:

Immunisation leaflet

NHS Health Scotland have produced a leaflet explaining the whooping cough vaccine in Scotland, why it's offered and when it's given.

This leaflet's also available in Easy Read English and other languages - including Polish, Simplified Chinese and Urdu.

Whooping Cough Help Protect Your Baby

Audio leaflet

Vaccine Safety Net Member

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The Vaccine Safety Net is a global network of websites, evaluated by the World Health Organization, that provides reliable information on vaccine safety.

More about the Vaccine Safety Net

Also on NHS inform