Symptoms and Signs of Whooping Cough in Adults

Medically Reviewed by Poonam Sachdev on April 15, 2024
5 min read

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.

At first, whooping cough – also called pertussis – might seem like a regular, run-of-the mill cold, which is why doctors often don't diagnose it as whooping cough right away. It may take 5-10 days after contact with the whooping cough bacteria to have any symptoms. It could even take as long as 3 weeks. Symptoms are divided between early and late stages.

Early whooping cough symptoms

These mimic a common cold and include:

  • 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 any time you have cold-like symptoms that don't get better in a few weeks – see your doctor.

Peak whooping cough symptoms

Two weeks on, if you have whooping cough, you might:

  • Have fits of rapid coughing followed by a natural attempt to catch your breath. That's when some people make a "whoop" sound.
  • Vomit during or after coughing episodes
  • Feel very tired and exhausted after coughing, but seem well otherwise
  • Have a hard time breathing

Your cough might keep you up at night. The fits could be so severe that you may end up turning blue from lack of oxygen. You could even break a rib during a coughing fit.

Whooping cough symptoms in adults vs. kids

Babies and small children often have more serious cases of whooping cough than teens and adults. But they may not have the telltale "whooping" cough or any cough at all. Symptoms of whooping cough in babies and young kids usually include:

  • Struggling to breathe
  • Turning blue
  • Common cold symptoms throughout the illness

Adults and teenagers with whooping cough will have the long coughing fits with the high-pitched whooping sound at the end, mostly if they haven't been vaccinated. If they've been vaccinated against whooping cough, their symptoms should be milder. 

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. They 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. This needs to be taken before the third week of illness is over, because the bacteria has usually left the body after that.

Treatment for whooping cough includes:

  • Taking antibiotics
  • Using a cool mist humidifier to clear mucus and soothe your cough
  • Keeping your home free of pollutants that might trigger a cough – like cigarette smoke and dust
  • Washing your hands with soap and water for 20 seconds to lessen the spread of infection
  • Drinking lots of fluids to prevent dehydration
  • Not taking cough medicine, unless your doctor allows it

If whooping cough becomes very serious, you may need to go to a hospital, but this is rare.

Whooping cough vs. croup

Whooping cough is similar to croup in that both illnesses are infections affecting the respiratory tract, the system related to breathing and your lungs. Both also have distinctive coughs and are spread by breathing in infected droplets when someone with the disease coughs or sneezes.

A big difference between the two is that whooping cough is caused by a bacteria and there is a vaccination to prevent it. Croup is caused by a virus and there is no vaccination for it. Antibiotics can be given for whooping cough, but for croup, there is no specific medicine. Croup is a swelling of your larynx (voice box) and trachea (windpipe). This condition mainly affects babies and kids under 3, because as they get older, kids' windpipes get larger, so they can breathe even if there is some swelling.

Symptoms of croup include:

  • A cough with a harsh barking sound
  • A raspy sound when breathing in
  • Stuffy or runny nose
  • Fever
  • Rash
  • Losing your voice




After you get a diagnosis of whooping cough, your doctor will likely treat you with antibiotics. It might take 2 to 3 weeks for you to recover, during which time you will cough less, though you'll still have some bouts of coughing.

You might also have higher chances of getting a respiratory infection for several months. People sometimes call whooping cough the "100-day cough" because it lingers so long. 

Whooping cough is considered mainly a childhood disease, but adults can get it too. It gets its name from the "whoop" sound you might make when you gasp for air at the end of a coughing fit. Treatment involves taking antibiotics, using a humidifier, and keeping the home free of pollutants that might trigger a coughing episode.

How do you know if your cough is whooping cough?

It may not be obvious during the first week or two. You might think you have an ordinary cold and cough. But during the second week, you may get a coughing fit with a whooping sound at the end of it.

Will whooping cough go away by itself?

Yes, but it might take weeks or months for this to happen. The bacteria itself will be gone after the third week, but the symptoms will continue to linger for a long time.

What are the three stages of whooping cough?

The three stages are: the catarrhal phase, the paroxysmal phase, and the convalescent phase. The catarrhal phase is when you have early symptoms of whooping cough that mimic the common cold. The paroxysmal phase is when you make the telltale "whoop" sound while coughing. The convalescent phase is the recovery period when the coughing lessens but continues for weeks or months.