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Whooping Cough Symptoms & Diagnosis


Symptoms usually begin 1-2 weeks (at most, three weeks) after exposure to the bacterium. Initial symptoms last about 7-14 days. They include:

  • Runny nose and congestion
  • Sneezing
  • Watery, red eyes
  • Mild fever
  • Dry cough, which marks the onset of the second stage:
    • The cough becomes progressively worse over days to weeks (usually lasting 2-6 weeks).
    • Prolonged coughing spells come on suddenly and frequently end with a forceful inhale or whoop.
    • The whoop is not often heard in young infants. They may gasp for breath or gag.
    • In severe cases, coughing may cause a person to have trouble breathing or turn blue from lack of oxygen.
    • Vomiting as a result of coughing is common.

Complications may include:

  • Seizures
  • Periods of apnea (no breathing)—more common in infants
  • Pneumonia
  • Collapsed lungs (rare)
  • Abdominal and inguinal hernias
  • Bleeding, swelling, and/or inflammation of the brain, possibly causing neurologic damage
  • Death (rare)—occurs more commonly in infants; mortality is 1%-2% before age one year.

The final stage is marked by slowly decreasing duration and severity of coughing spells. The average duration of illness is about six weeks, with a range or 3 weeks to 3 months. Fits of coughing may recur for months. In the majority of cases, patients fully recover.


Whooping cough can be difficult to diagnose, especially in older children and adults. This is because:

  • At first, symptoms are very similar to those of the common cold .
  • Later, symptoms can be very similar to bronchitis (especially in adults).

The doctor will ask about your symptoms and medical history, and perform a physical exam. Tests may include:

  • Blood tests
  • Swab of nose and throat for culture
  • Chest x-ray

Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Copyright © 2023 EBSCO Publishing All rights reserved.

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