What are the symptoms of whooping cough (pertussis)?

Whooping cough usually starts off with cold-like symptoms for 7-14 days including:

  • a sore throat
  • fever (a temperature of 38.5°C or higher)
  • sneezing
  • a blocked or runny nose
  • a dry cough
  • feeling generally unwell.
The symptoms generally emerge between about 1 and 3 weeks after you are first exposed to the bacteria that cause whooping cough.
If you think that you or child has whooping cough, you must see a doctor. Avoid contact with others until you have seen a doctor.

Find out more about how to treat a fever.

Cough symptoms

After the initial cold-like symptoms, the infection then develops into a cough, which produces thick phlegm (mucus produced by the airways during infection). A bout of coughing is often followed by a deep intake of breath making the characteristic ‘whoop’ sound suggested by the name.

The cough symptoms can be severe in babies and young children, and can cause vomiting after coughing, and tiredness from the effort of coughing.

Babies who are younger than 3 months may not make the whooping sound when they cough, instead they may gasp or look like they are choking, and may stop breathing very briefly and sometimes become blue in the face. This may cause anxiety, but your child will usually start breathing again very quickly.

Seek medical attention if you are concerned or your child’s symptoms worsen.

The cough generally lasts about 2 weeks, but it can last for up to 3 months or more after the infection has cleared. Even if you still have a cough after 3 weeks, it is unlikely that you will still be infectious.

Whooping cough can be prevented by vaccination and is treated with antibiotics.

Find out about the treatments for whooping cough and how to manage the symptoms of whooping cough.

Complications of whooping cough

In rare cases, severe whooping cough infections can cause complications including:

  • pneumonia (called pertussis pneumonia)
  • difficulty breathing
  • seizures or brain damage caused by lack of oxygen to the brain
  • kidney failure
  • vomiting that can lead to weight loss.
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