Whooping Cough (Pertussis)

Medically Reviewed by Zilpah Sheikh, MD on January 28, 2024
8 min read

Whooping cough (also known as pertussis) is a bacterial infection that affects your respiratory tract, especially your nose and throat. It causes long stretches of severe coughs that sometimes end with a whooping sound.

It spreads easily, but vaccines such as DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus, and pertussis) for infants and children and Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, and pertussis) for older children and adults can help prevent it.

Before the vaccine was created, whooping cough was thought to be a childhood disease. Anyone can get whooping cough, but it generally happens more often in infants, children, and older children. Infants younger than 2 months of age, who are too young to receive the vaccine, are especially at risk.

Whooping cough is milder in adults and can occur in those whose immunity has worn off.

Whooping cough vs. croup

Whooping cough and croup are both infections of the respiratory tract. Croup is a viral infection, while whooping cough is caused by bacteria. Croup usually runs for a shorter time frame and goes away on its own. Also, there is no vaccine for croup, and it can't be treated with antibiotics.

The sounds of the coughs, which are a symptom of both conditions, are also different. Whooping cough can come with a gasping or “whooping” sound, while croup usually causes a barking cough.

At first, whooping cough has the same symptoms as the average cold:

You may also have diarrhea early on.

After about 7-10 days, the cough turns into “coughing spells” that may end with a whooping sound as the person tries to breathe in air.

Because the cough is dry and doesn't produce mucus, these spells can last up to 1 minute. Sometimes, it can cause your face to briefly turn red or purple.

Most people with whooping cough have coughing spells, but not everyone does. Infants may not make the whooping sound or even cough, but they might gasp for air or try to catch their breath during these spells. Some may vomit.

Sometimes, adults with the condition just have a cough that won’t go away. You may notice fewer symptoms after 4 weeks, but coughing bouts can come back and continue for months after symptoms start. It may last 10 weeks or more.

Whooping cough sound

Coughing for a long time causes you to have to take in air that you've lost. If you have whooping cough, you'll gasp after a coughing episode, which can create a whooping sound. You can still, however, have the infection without the noise.

A type of bacteria calledBordetella pertussis causes whooping cough. If a person with whooping cough sneezes, laughs, or coughs, small droplets that contain this bacteria may fly through the air. You might get sick if you breathe in the droplets.

When the bacteria get into your airways, they attach to the tiny hairs in the linings of the lungs. The bacteria cause swelling and inflammation, which lead to a dry, long-lasting cough and other cold-like symptoms.

Can adults get whooping cough?

Anyone can get whooping cough, including adults. In adults, whooping cough usually occurs in those who haven't received the vaccine or whose immunity has worn off. They also tend to have milder symptoms than children, especially those adults who've received the vaccine.

Whooping cough risk factors

Whooping cough can cause anyone at any age to get sick. The vaccine you received as a child wears off, so older children and adults who haven't gotten the vaccine since childhood are at risk of whooping cough. Also, because babies do not receive the vaccine until they are 2 months old, they are at risk from birth until they are vaccinated. 

You can get sick from it even if you've already been vaccinated, but that's not likely. If you do get whooping cough despite being vaccinated, you usually:

  • Have symptoms that are milder and for a shorter time

  • Have fewer coughing episodes with the whooping sound

Whooping cough is dangerous for babies, especially those who are younger than 1 year old because it can keep them from getting the oxygen they need. This can cause:

  • Brain damage or bleeding on the brain
  • Pneumonia
  • Seizures
  • Apnea
  • Convulsions

If you think your infant might have it, see their doctor right away.

Children under the age of 12 months with whooping cough should be watched at all times because the coughing spells can make them stop breathing or lead to other complications. Young babies with bad cases may need hospital care, too.

Help protect your child by making sure they and any adult who's around them often get vaccinated.

In teens and adults, whooping cough can lead to pneumonia. Severe coughing can also cause:

  • Abdominal hernias
  • Broken blood vessels
  • Bruised ribs
  • Trouble controlling when you pee
  • Trouble sleeping

Because symptoms of whooping cough are a lot like those caused by a cold, the flu, or bronchitis, it can be hard to diagnose it early on. Your doctor may be able to tell that you have it by the sound of your cough, but tests can confirm it.

  • Nose or throat culture. A simple swab of the area where your nose and throat meet can be tested for the bacteria that causes whooping cough.
  • Blood test. A high white blood cell count is a sign that your body is fighting off an infection, but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s whooping cough.
  • Chest X-ray. An x-ray can show if you have inflammation or fluid in your lungs, which can be a sign of pneumonia.

If you find out you have whooping cough early on, antibiotics can help cut down coughing and other symptoms. They can also help prevent the infection from spreading to others. But most people are diagnosed too late for antibiotics to work well.

Don't use over-the-counter cough medicines, cough suppressants, or expectorants (medicines that make you cough up mucus) to treat whooping cough. They don't work.

If your coughing spells are so bad that they keep you from drinking enough fluids, you can get dehydrated. If this happens, call your doctor right away.

Home remedies

You can do a few things to feel better and recover faster:

  • Get lots of rest. This can give your body more strength to fight the illness.
  • Eat small meals as often as you feel up to it. Eating smaller, more frequent meals can help prevent the vomiting that may result from harsh coughing spells.
  • Clean air. Keeping the air around you free of dust, smoke, and other irritants can help soothe coughing.
  • Drink fluids. Stay hydrated by drinking lots of water or juice. If you notice signs of dehydration, such as dry lips or peeing less often, call your doctor right away.

Vaccines and other preventative medications can reduce the risk of spreading the infection.

Whooping cough vaccine

The DTaP vaccine can help protect children from whooping cough. Starting at 2 months, infants should get a dose every other month for the first 6 months, another between 15 and 18 months, and then one last time between ages 4 and 6.

Older children and adults need the Tdap vaccine and a booster every 10 years because the vaccine can weaken over time. The best age for preteens to get it is between 11 and 12. Adults who’ve never had the vaccine can get it anytime and should receive a Tdap or Td booster every 10 years or after 5 years if they have a serious burn or wound. Pregnant women should get a booster during each pregnancy to help protect their newborn. The CDC recommends this during the early part of the third trimester.

Some possible side effects from the vaccination include:

  • Itching, swelling, or redness at the injection site
  • Fever 
  • Headache
  • Tiredness
  • Upset stomach or vomiting
  • Feeling nauseous
  • Diarrhea

Preventative medications

Another important key to prevention is to protect the people around you. If someone in your household has whooping cough, make sure they cover their mouth or cough into their elbow to prevent the bacteria from spreading. Make sure they wash their hands often, and consider having them wear a mask when they’re near others.

If you've been exposed to whooping cough, your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic to help prevent infection, particularly if:

  • You're pregnant
  • You live with someone who is at a high risk of having severe complications or who has whooping cough
  • You're a health care provider
  • You have a condition that puts you at risk for severe complications
  • You are younger than 12 months of age

If you have whooping cough, you'll usually have cold symptoms for up to 2 weeks and then 10 weeks or more of coughing fits. Within another few weeks, you should slowly start to feel better as your symptoms improve. The recovery time for some may be months.

Whooping cough, also known as pertussis, is a very contagious bacterial infection of your nose and throat, or your respiratory tract. It causes long stretches of severe coughs that sometimes end with a whooping sound. The symptoms can persist for a few weeks to several months. Infants under 2 months of age are most at risk because they can't get vaccinated against whooping cough, but it also happens in older children and adults whose immunity has worn off. If you have symptoms that are similar to those of a cold, continue for more than a week, and come with coughing spells, talk to your doctor. Your doctor can prescribe antibiotics if the condition is caught early.

  • Will whooping cough go away on its own? Whooping cough is usually treated with antibiotics, and it's recommended to get treatment early to keep it from spreading and to keep your symptoms from getting severe. After having whooping cough for 3 weeks without treatment, antibiotics may not help because the bacteria is already out of your system. Your symptoms may last for months.
  • How serious is whooping cough in adults? Symptoms from whooping cough tend to be milder in adults, especially those who have received the vaccine. Teenagers and adults can have severe cases and even serious complications, especially those who aren't vaccinated.
  • Is whooping cough dry or wet? The cough that comes with whooping cough is dry, causes irritation, and leads to coughing fits.
  • What does a pertussis cough sound like in adults? The “whoop in whooping cough is usually not present in milder cases of pertussis, and adults usually don't have severe symptoms.