Signs and Symptoms of Whooping Cough

Signs and symptoms of whooping cough usually develop about 7 to 10 days after exposure to the pertussis bacteria, but they may occur as few as 3 days or as many as 21 days following exposure. The most common symptom of pertussis is persistent cough.

Early pertussis symptoms often are similar to those caused by the common cold and include the following:

  • Dry cough
  • Eye, nose, and throat irritation
  • Mild fever
  • Sneezing
  • Stuffy or runny nose

After 1 or 2 weeks, cough associated with pertussis often worsens in severity and begins to produce thick mucus. Coughing spells (called paroxysms) can last several minutes and result in problems breathing, causing an intake of breath that produces the characteristic "whooping" sound. In some cases, persistent coughing can disrupt sleep. Chronic cough related to pertussis may last 4–8 weeks or longer.

Symptoms of whooping cough often vary, depending on the age of the patient. For example, the characteristic whoop may not develop in babies younger than 6 months of age, adolescents, and adults with pertussis, and children are more likely than adolescents and adults to experience vomiting and difficulty sleeping.

Pertussis Complications

Whooping cough can cause several complications, some of which can be severe and may require hospitalization. Infants under the age of 1 year are at the highest risk for complications from pertussis.

Whooping cough complications include the following:

  • Broken blood vessels caused by severe coughing (e.g., in the whites of the eyes or on the skin of the upper body)
  • Convulsions or seizures (involuntary muscle contractions and relaxations)
  • Difficulty breathing, eating, and drinking
  • Ear infections
  • Encephalopathy (serious condition that affects the brain)
  • Fatigue (caused by interrupted sleep)
  • Fractured rib (caused by violent coughing)
  • Hernia (caused by straining during coughing; e.g., inguinal hernia)
  • Pneumonia (lung infection)
  • Vomiting
  • Weight loss (caused by coughing that interferes with eating)

Publication Review By: Stanley J. Swierzewski, III, M.D.

Published: 31 Aug 2009

Last Modified: 13 Oct 2015