Whooping Cough (Pertussis)

  • Medical Author:
    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD

    Melissa Conrad Stöppler, MD, is a U.S. board-certified Anatomic Pathologist with subspecialty training in the fields of Experimental and Molecular Pathology. Dr. Stöppler's educational background includes a BA with Highest Distinction from the University of Virginia and an MD from the University of North Carolina. She completed residency training in Anatomic Pathology at Georgetown University followed by subspecialty fellowship training in molecular diagnostics and experimental pathology.

  • Medical Editor: John Mersch, MD, FAAP
    John Mersch, MD, FAAP

    John Mersch, MD, FAAP

    Dr. Mersch received his Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of California, San Diego, and prior to entering the University Of Southern California School Of Medicine, was a graduate student (attaining PhD candidate status) in Experimental Pathology at USC. He attended internship and residency at Children's Hospital Los Angeles.

Quick GuideWhooping Cough (Pertussis) Symptoms, Vaccine Facts

Whooping Cough (Pertussis) Symptoms, Vaccine Facts

How long does whooping cough last?

It can take up to three weeks after exposure to develop symptoms, although symptoms usually develop within five to 10 days after infection. The paroxysmal stage, characterized by the coughing fits, usually lasts from one to six weeks but can last for up to 10 weeks. The third and final stage (convalescent stage) lasts about two to three weeks.

What does whooping cough sound like?

As mentioned above, the characteristic cough of pertussis occurs in the second or paroxysmal stage of the illness. There is a series or burst of rapid coughs. At the end of these coughs, a long inspiratory effort (breathing in) is usually accompanied by a high-pitched whoop sound for which the disease is named.

How is whooping cough transmitted?

Whooping cough is highly contagious and is spread among people by direct contact with fluids from the nose or mouth of infected people. People contaminate their hands with respiratory secretions from an infected person and then touch their own mouth or nose. In addition, small bacteria-containing droplets of mucus from the nose or lungs enter the air during coughing or sneezing. People can become infected by breathing in these drops.

Can adults get whooping cough?

Although whooping cough is considered to be an illness of childhood, adults may also develop the disease even if they were vaccinated as children. Because immunity from the pertussis vaccine decreases over time but does not necessarily disappear, adults who do become infected may have retained a partial degree of immunity against the infection that results in a milder illness. Although the illness usually is milder in adults than in children, the duration of the paroxysmal cough lasts just as long as in children. The characteristic whoop that occurs after paroxysmal bouts of coughing is recognized in only 20%-40% of adults with whooping cough.

Whooping cough in adults is more common than usually appreciated, accounting for up to 7% of adult illnesses that cause coughing each year. Infected adults are a reservoir (source) of infection for children, so it is particularly important that all family members and caregivers of young infants be properly vaccinated.

Medically Reviewed by a Doctor on 10/28/2016

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