Whooping cough symptoms

Whooping cough is a highly contagious disease caused by Bordetella pertussis, bacteria that affect the lungs and airways. Understanding the symptoms of whooping cough can help people better protect themselves and those around them.

Image of people suffering from whooping cough

Signs & symptoms

Symptoms of whooping cough can change as the illness progresses and may be different in babies, young children, and adults. One of the most distinct symptoms is the loud, high-pitched “whoop” sound that may occur between coughing fits as you try to take in breaths.

Icon: Woman coughing

Early symptoms

Whooping cough can start with cold-like symptoms: a runny nose or congestion, sneezing and mild cough, or mild fever.

Icon: Woman covering her mouth while coughing

Worsening cough

After one to two weeks, the cough can worsen due to thick mucus in the airways. Coughing fits usually become more frequent and get worse as the illness continues. Violent, uncontrollable coughing fits can go on to disrupt life for weeks or a couple of months.

Icon: Woman coughing while lying down

Nighttime cough

Patients may have sleep disruptions or difficulties sleeping for weeks to months due to coughing fits that often occur at night.

Image of older woman coughing while lying in bed

Understand the risk

Anyone can get whooping cough, at any age. Babies are at the most risk for serious illness, but whooping cough isn’t just for kids.  Though complications are sometimes less serious in older age groups, the violent coughing fits are sometimes followed by vomiting and exhaustion and can disrupt sleep for a period of weeks to months.

Is whooping cough contagious?

Whooping cough is highly contagious, and many people who spread whooping cough may not even know they have it. The bacteria that cause whooping cough spread easily through coughing or sneezing while in close contact with others, especially within households.

Icon: Older couple

Press play to hear an adult with whooping cough

 

Whooping cough in adults

In adults, early-stage whooping cough lasts one to two weeks and looks much like the common cold, with symptoms like runny nose, low-grade fever, and occasional cough.

In its later stages, though complications are less serious in older adults, the violent coughing fits are sometimes followed by vomiting and exhaustion and can disrupt sleep for weeks to months.

Risks for adults

Icon: Father and son

Press play to hear a child with whooping cough

 

Whooping cough in children

In children, early-stage whooping cough looks much like the common cold, with symptoms such as runny nose, mild fever, and occasional cough that last for one to two weeks.

In later stages of whooping cough, children might have rapid coughing fits that follow with a “whoop” sound. Children will sometimes cough so much that they vomit and feel exhausted afterward.

Icon: Woman holding her baby while standing next to husband

Whooping cough in infants

Whooping cough can cause severe illness in babies. In its early stages, it can look like the common cold, with symptoms like runny nose, mild fever, and occasional cough.

In later stages of whooping cough, babies might have rapid coughing fits followed by a “whoop” sound and become exhausted afterward. But many young infants don’t cough at all, or may also have a pause in breathing, called apnea, and turn blue. You should immediately call for emergency help if that happens.

Vaccination in pregnancy

Is it whooping cough, or something else?

In its early stages, whooping cough symptoms can resemble those of a cold. However, whooping cough worsens with time, with symptoms that may become more serious.

It’s important to recognize the symptoms of whooping cough to help your healthcare professional diagnose it early. Getting the vaccine to prevent whooping cough can help reduce risk of disease.

How whooping cough develops and progresses over time

Whooping cough has three stages. How long whooping cough lasts can vary from person-to-person. Whooping cough symptoms may look different in children and adults.

Stage 1

Highly contagious

Runny nose

Low-grade fever

Mild, occasional cough

First 2 weeks

Stage 2

‘Whoop’ cough

Fits of several rapid coughs, followed by ‘whoop’ sound

Vomiting or exhaustion after coughing fits

Many young infants may not cough at all but instead have a pause in breathing

Lasts 1-6 weeks

Can sometimes extend up to 10 weeks

Stage 3

Susceptible to respiratory infections

Recovery is gradual

Coughing lessens, but fits of coughing may return

Lasts 2-3 weeks

doctor speaking to patient

Whooping cough treatments

For people diagnosed with whooping cough, there are treatment options available to help manage symptoms and treat the infection that causes the disease. If you or someone in your family is experiencing the symptoms of whooping cough talk to your doctor right away.