What are the symptoms of whooping cough (pertussis)?

Pertussis can cause serious illness in infants, children and adults. The disease starts like the common cold, with runny nose or congestion, sneezing, and maybe mild cough or fever. But after one to two weeks, severe coughing can begin.

Unlike the common cold, pertussis can become a series of coughing fits that continues for weeks. Pertussis can cause violent and rapid coughing, over and over, until the air is gone from the lungs and you are forced to inhale with a loud "whooping" sound. In infants, the cough can be minimal or not even there. They may instead have life-threatening pauses in breathing (apnea).

The initial symptoms of whooping cough are similar to those of a cold: runny or stuffy nose, sneezing, watery eyes, low-grade fever, and a cough. The symptoms of whooping cough last for approximately 6 to 10 weeks.

After a period of 7 to 14 days, the symptoms get worse: thick mucus; a hacking, productive cough, which is followed by the characteristic "whoop" of inhaled breath. The coughing may induce young children to vomit, and inability to intake breath may cause the skin to turn blue.

The coughing fits subside after several weeks, but children may cough for weeks to months later.

Pertussis, or whooping cough, causes severe coughing fits. It may lead to complications including pneumonia.

Dr. James D. Cherry, MD

The symptoms of whooping cough (pertussis) vary by age. They initially include a runny nose and a mild cough. Coughing fits increase in frequency and severity over a 2 to 6 week period. Young infants will have episodes where they stop breathing and they may have convulsions. Older children will have a whooping sound when taking a breath after a coughing fit and there is sometimes vomiting following a coughing episode. Persons of all ages will often turn red or purple during a coughing fit. It is important to emphasize that patients of all ages with pertussis have no fever.

Continue Learning about Whooping Cough

How to Protect Your Family From Whooping Cough
How to Protect Your Family From Whooping Cough
The Whooping Crane is an endangered species—about 400 of these noisy, five-foot tall birds are left in North America. If only whooping cough—that’s pe...
Read More
Does whooping cough (pertussis) affect children differently than adults?
Dale M. Valentine, MDDale M. Valentine, MD
Whooping cough or pertussis can cause a very irritating cough that can last for months in adults. So...
More Answers
Who is whooping cough (pertussis) most severe in?
James FortenberryJames Fortenberry
Pertussis, also known as “whooping cough”, is an infection of the lungs and respiratory (breathing) ...
More Answers
How Effective Are Pertussis (Whooping Cough) Vaccines?
How Effective Are Pertussis (Whooping Cough) Vaccines?

Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.