Pertussis, often called whooping cough, is caused by a bacterial infection. It’s a highly contagious illness that spreads easily from person to person through airborne germs from the nose and throat. While infants have the greatest chance of getting whooping cough, the illness can be contracted at any age.
In general, whooping cough starts off like a common cold. Symptoms can include runny nose, low-grade fever, tiredness, and a mild or occasional cough.
Over time, coughing spells become more severe. Coughing may last for several weeks, sometimes 10 weeks or longer. Scientific studies suggest that up to 1 in 20 adults with a cough that lasts for more than two or three weeks may have pertussis.
The severity of symptoms may vary in adults. Symptoms are often less severe in adults who have gained some protection against whooping cough from a previous immunization or infection.
Symptoms of pertussis in adults may include:
- prolonged, severe coughing fits, followed by gasping for breath
- vomiting after coughing fits
- exhaustion after coughing fits
The classic “whoop” symptom is a high-pitched wheezing sound made when a person gasps for breath after a severe coughing attack. This symptom may be absent in adults with whooping cough.
It usually takes about seven to 10 days after being exposed to the infection to start showing symptoms. Full recovery from whooping cough may take two to three months. Doctors divide whooping cough into three stages:
Stage 1: The earliest stage of whooping cough may last one to two weeks. During this time, symptoms are similar to the common cold. You’re highly contagious during this time.
Stage 2: Severe, violent coughing spells develop during this stage. Between coughing spells, people often gasp for breath, salivate, and get teary-eyed. Vomiting and exhaustion may follow severe coughing fits. This stage usually lasts one to six weeks, but may last as long as 10 weeks. You remain contagious up until about two weeks after the cough begins.
Stage 3: In this stage, the cough begins to lessen. You’re no longer contagious at this time. This stage typically lasts two to three weeks. Because you’re more susceptible to other respiratory infections, including the common cold, recovery may take longer if other illnesses occur.
While young children are more likely to have complications from pertussis than adults, some complications may still occur in adults.
The best way to prevent whooping cough is to get vaccinated. Tdap, a pertussis booster shot, is recommended for unvaccinated adults instead of their next Td (tetanus and diphtheria) booster, which is given every 10 years.
The effectiveness of vaccines decreases over time. Adults who were vaccinated against pertussis as children can get whooping cough as their immunity, or protection against the disease, begins to fade.
Make an appointment to see your healthcare provider if you think you may have come into contact with someone with whooping cough, even if you haven’t developed a chronic cough.
Diagnosis and treatment
Doctors usually diagnose whooping cough by taking a swab of mucus from the back of the throat or nose. They may also order a blood test.
Early treatment is important, because it can help prevent the spread of disease to other people, especially infants, who are highly susceptible to the illness.
Whooping cough is usually treated with antibiotics, which can help reduce the severity or length of time it takes to recover from the illness. However, antibiotics aren’t likely to help if the cough has persisted for more than two to three weeks.
Taking cough medications probably will not help ease symptoms. The CDC advises against taking cough medicine unless instructed by your doctor.