Signs and Symptoms

Whooping cough may begin like a common cold, but unlike a cold, the coughing can last for weeks or months.

Symptoms of whooping cough usually develop within 5 to 10 days after you come into contact with the bacteria that cause it. Sometimes symptoms do not develop for as long as 3 weeks.

Early symptoms: Stage 1

When to see a doctor

See a doctor if you or your child are:

  • Struggling to breathe
  • Turning blue or purple
  • Coughing violently
  • Coughing rapidly, over and over
  • Not drinking enough fluids

Any time someone is struggling to breathe, it is important to get them to a doctor right away.

Early symptoms can last for 1 to 2 weeks and usually include:

  • Runny or stuffed-up nose
  • Low-grade fever (less than 100.4°F)
  • Mild, occasional cough (babies do not do this)
  • Apnea (life-threatening pauses in breathing) and cyanosis (turning blue or purple) in babies and young children

In its early stages, whooping cough appears to be nothing more than the common cold. Therefore, doctors often do not suspect or diagnose it until the more severe symptoms appear.

Later symptoms: Stage 2

One to 2 weeks after the first symptoms start, people with whooping cough may develop paroxysms—rapid, violent, and uncontrolled coughing fits. These coughing fits usually last 1 to 6 weeks but can last for up to 10 weeks. Coughing fits generally get worse and become more common as the illness continues.

Coughing fits can cause people to

  • Make a high-pitched “whoop” sound when they are finally able to inhale at the end of a coughing fit
  • Vomit during or after coughing fits
  • Feel very tired after the fit, but usually seem well in-between fits
  • Struggle to breathe

Babies may struggle to breathe, while teens and adults usually have mild symptoms

Many babies with whooping cough don’t cough at all. Instead it may cause apnea and turn blue or struggle to breathe. It may seem like a common cold for the entire illness, not just the beginning.

The infection is generally milder in teens and adults than in babies and children, especially those who have gotten vaccinated against whooping cough. It may seem like a common cold. The “whoop” is often not there for people who have a milder illness.

However, teens and adults can have serious cases of whooping cough. Teens and adults, especially those who did not get whooping cough vaccines, may have lengthy coughing fits that keep them up at night. Those who get these coughing fits say it’s the worst cough of their lives. It can also cause major disruptions to daily life and serious complications.

Vaccinated people may not get as sick

Whooping cough vaccines are effective, but not perfect. The infection is usually not as bad for people who have gotten vaccinated against whooping cough but still get sick.

In vaccinated people who get whooping cough:

  • The cough usually won’t last as many days
  • Coughing fits, whooping, and vomiting after coughing fits are less common
  • Apnea and cyanosis are less common (in vaccinated babies and children)

CDC recommends whooping cough vaccines for people of all ages. Learn more about whooping cough vaccination.

Recovery: Stage 3

Recovery from whooping cough can be slow. The cough becomes milder and less common as you get better.

Coughing fits may stop for a while but can return if you get other respiratory infections. Coughing fits can return many months after the whooping cough illness started.