Whooping Cough (Pertussis): Symptoms & Treatment

By Jenell Decker, MD
Medically reviewed checkmarkMedically reviewed
December 16, 2019

Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, is a highly contagious bacterial infection in the lungs. The most common symptom is an uncontrollable, hacking cough. After coughing, a person with pertussis usually needs to take deep inhales, resulting in a “whooping” sound, which gives the condition its name.

What Is Whooping Cough (Pertussis)?

Whooping cough (pertussis) is a respiratory tract infection that can affect all age groups, but occurs most commonly in infants and children. Adults who contract pertussis usually experience symptoms that are more mild. In fact, doctors may misdiagnose pertussis symptoms in adults as asthma or bronchitis.

The pertussis vaccine can help prevent you from getting whooping cough, though it isn’t 100% effective.

Stages of Whooping Cough

Whooping cough symptoms appear in three stages:

  • Stage one: Stage one lasts approximately 1-2 weeks. It is characterized by a low fever, sneezing, and a sporadic, mild cough.
  • Stage two: Stage two lasts 1-2 months. The cough becomes more serious, and a whooping noise may follow coughing fits. Occasionally someone with whooping cough could vomit and/or turn blue during this stage.
  • Stage three: Stage three can last anywhere from weeks to months. In this recovery stage, the cough lessens. However, it could return if the person infected contracts a different respiratory infection.

Someone infected with whooping cough can be contagious for up to three weeks after they begin coughing.

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What Causes Whooping Cough?

The bacteria Bordetella pertussis causes whooping cough. Whooping cough spreads when an infected individual coughs or sneezes. As a result, pertussis often moves quickly through households. Before vaccines, approximately 157 per 10,000 people contracted whooping cough in the U.S.

Whooping Cough Symptoms

It can take seven to ten days for the first signs of whooping cough to appear, though symptoms can take even longer to appear. At first, the symptoms of whooping cough can resemble a common cold, and include:

While pertussis symptoms can initially resemble a cold or even the flu, symptoms begin to worsen after a week or two. Severe coughing fits, some of which can last a couple minutes, begin. The fits are interrupted and/or followed by gasps for air. The whooping sound is less common in babies and children, who might gag or, in some cases, temporarily stop breathing.

Whooping Cough Treatment Options

While adults and children can usually treat whooping cough at home, infants are more likely to require hospital treatment because of the severity of symptoms and potential for complications in that age group.

Antibiotics are used early in diagnosis to kill the bacteria responsible for pertussis and prevent someone from becoming contagious. However, if the disease is diagnosed too late, antibiotics may or may not be prescribed. If they are prescribed it is to prevent the spread of the bacteria or becoming someone who is a carrier of the bacteria, not to treat the illness.

Treatment options for whooping cough are:

  • Oxygen: A face mask might be administered if breathing assistance is needed.
  • Corticosteroids: Corticosteroids are hormones that can reduce inflammation to help with breathing. They can be used in conjunction with antibiotics.

At-home treatment for whooping cough can include:

  • Plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration
  • Rest
  • Ibuprofen or acetaminophen to help with a fever or sore throat
  • A vaporizer to loosen mucus
  • Do not use over-the-counter cough suppressants or medicines as these will not be effective for whooping cough.

The Whooping Cough Vaccine

The whooping cough vaccine can help prevent all age groups from contracting the disease. Infants receive the DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis) vaccine on a schedule starting at two months old. Once the vaccine series is complete a booster must be readministered every six to ten years to continue protection. Even adults who are around young children should have a booster regularly. Side effects of the vaccine are notably mild, and can include redness, tenderness, and in some instances, a fever.

School requirements for whooping cough vaccines:

  • Pre-K: Four doses of the DTaP vaccine.
  • Kindergarten to 5th grade: Five doses of the DTaP vaccine. Can also be four doses if they start at age four or older, or three doses if they start at age seven or older.
  • 6th grade to 12th grade: Three doses of the DTaP vaccine/one dose of the Tdap booster if they haven’t received it at age seven or older.

Whooping Cough in Children

Whooping cough is most common in infants and young children. While adults can contract whooping cough, the symptoms are often less severe, but they can spread it to infants and young children.

  • Infants: Whooping cough can be very serious in infants, especially those six months or younger. Children under 18 months of age should be monitored closely, as there is the possibility that the coughing fits could prevent them from breathing.
  • Young children: Young children are also at risk for developing whooping cough. Whooping cough is so contagious that eight out of ten people who haven’t received the vaccine will get it after being exposed to someone who’s infected. Antibiotics will typically be prescribed to children who have whooping cough, and may also be administered to family members or others who have been in close contact.
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When to See a Doctor

You should seek immediate medical attention if you’re experiencing symptoms and non-stop coughing fits are causing:

You should also see a doctor immediately if your child:

  • Has sunken eyes and is urinating less frequently
  • Is not drinking fluids or eating
  • Is sleeping too much or seems restless/is sleeping too little
  • Is three months or younger with a rectal temperature of 101° F or higher

Related conditions to whooping cough include:

Infants/young adults:

  • Pneumonia
  • Apnea
  • Convulsions
  • Encephalophy (brain damage or disease)
  • Dehydration/weight loss
  • About 50% of infants under the age of one will need hospital care. In extreme cases, whooping cough can be fatal to infants.


  • Loss of bladder control
  • Weight loss
  • Rib fractures
  • Passing out
  • Broken blood vessels in the eyes or skin

Risk factors for whooping cough vary. Because the effectiveness of the whooping cough vaccine declines with time, teenagers and adults can be susceptible to getting whooping cough due as the vaccine gradually wears off.

Infants who are under one year and are either unvaccinated or haven’t received all their vaccines are also very vulnerable.

How K Health Can Help

Are you wondering if your coughing symptoms are actually whooping cough? Using K Health’s virtual diagnosis AI will help you assess if the symptoms you’re experiencing are more serious and may require medical attention and treatment. Download K, then check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and chat with a doctor in minutes if needed. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.

K Health articles are all written and reviewed by MDs, PhDs, NPs, or PharmDs and are for informational purposes only. This information does not constitute and should not be relied on for professional medical advice. Always talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of any treatment.

Jenell Decker, MD

Dr. Decker is a family medicine physician who completed her residency at East Carolina University School of Medicine. She graduated medical school from Marshall University School of Medicine.