What Are the Signs of Whooping Cough in Adults?

Whooping cough gets its name from its most famous symptom -- a "whoop" sound you might make when you gasp for air at the end of a coughing fit. But it doesn't happen in all adults, so it's important to learn the range of symptoms you might get -- from a runny nose to a hacking cough that you can't seem to shake.

Early Signs

At first, whooping cough -- also called pertussis -- might seem like a regular, run-of-the mill cold. You might get symptoms like:

  • Runny nose
  • Low-grade fever
  • Mild cough

Those problems often last a week or two, but the similarities with a cold end there. Most common colds wrap up in less than 2 weeks, but whooping cough will start to get worse.

As soon as you suspect you might have whooping cough -- or anytime you have cold-like symptoms that don't get better in a few weeks -- see your doctor.

To make a diagnosis, your doctor will listen to your cough and ask questions about your symptoms. In some cases -- such as when it's hard to figure out if it's whooping cough, the flu, or bronchitis -- you might need tests. Those often include a nose or throat culture. Your doctor will take a mucus sample and send it to a lab. Technicians will test it to see if it contains the bacteria that causes whooping cough.

Your doctor may also suggest blood tests to check your white blood cell count, a general sign of infection. He might ask you to get a chest X-ray to see if you have inflammation or fluid in your lungs that are signs of pneumonia, a complication of whooping cough.

See a doctor if you don't have symptoms but have been in contact with someone else who has whooping cough. You might need to take medication that can help fight the disease in case you catch it.

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Peak Symptoms

If you have whooping cough, your cough will become more frequent and more severe.

As the condition worsens, you'll likely have fits of rapid coughing followed by a natural attempt to catch your breath. That's when some people make a sound that sounds like a "whoop."

Your cough might keep you up at night. For some people, the fits are so severe that you may end up turning blue from lack of oxygen.

The hacking cough can make some people throw up or feel exhausted. You could even break a rib during a coughing fit.

Recovery

After you get a diagnosis of whooping cough, your doctor may treat you with antibiotics. It will take some time for you to fully recover. Your cough might stick with you for 1 to 2 months or more. People in China call it the "100-day cough" because it lingers so long. You might also have higher chances of getting a respiratory infection during this time.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD on February 08, 2019

Sources

SOURCES:

National Foundation for Infectious Diseases: "Facts About Whooping Cough for Adults."

CDC: "Pertussis: Frequently Asked Questions," "Pertussis (Whooping Cough): Signs and Symptoms."

Mayo Clinic: "Whooping Cough."

New York State Department of Health: "Pertussis or Whooping Cough Fact Sheet."

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